Joseph S. Popp, Jr., 82, died of natural causes, peacefully in his sleep at home in Mooresville, NC on Thursday, July 19. Popp enjoyed a successful and legendary football coaching career at several high schools and universities and in the NFL. But his proudest accomplishment was his family – his wonderful wife of 58 years, Peggy, and his beloved three children and eight grandchildren.
Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Joseph and Alice Popp, he was the oldest of eight children. His dad worked in the steel mills and coal mines, and both parents came from immigrant families. Coach Popp was a stellar athlete, quarterbacking his high school football program to its first undefeated season. He received numerous college athletic scholarship offers and chose to come to North Carolina on a football and basketball scholarship at Catawba College. He excelled and lettered in both sports. After graduating in 1952, he became the Head Football Coach at Jonesville High School (now Starmount) in North Carolina, where he coached for four seasons winning 35 of 39 games. He was then named the Head Coach at Southwest High School in Winston-Salem, NC and led the school to win Conference Championships both seasons. Thereafter, he became the Head Coach at Mooresville High School in Mooresville, NC, where the school had endured a 32 game losing streak. In just two years, Coach Popp led the Mooresville Blue Devils to an undefeated regular season. The following year, in 1961, Coach Popp led the school to win its first and only State Football Championship title. The high school stadium bears his name, Coach Joe Popp Stadium.
Coach Popp’s college and professional coaching career was equally impressive and spanned four decades. He coached at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, George Washington University, Wake Forest University and Georgia Tech during the 1960s and 1970s. He was the Defensive Coordinator at Wake Forest and Georgia Tech and coached in several bowl games. He coached in the World Football League for the Chicago Winds in the 1970s, and joined the Cleveland Browns coaching staff in the 1980s. He retired with the Browns in the early 1990s.
The Coach made his home in Mooresville, where former players from many of his various teams often visited over the years. He also attended class reunions where he was celebrated with love and admiration, including the Southwest High’s 55th class reunion and Mooresville High’s 50th reunion within the last year. Players have repeatedly expressed gratitude for the motivational inspiration Coach Popp provided throughout their lives. The Coach loved his players and instilled in them the confidence and courage to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves. His famous “Hi-Hi-Ho-Ho” cheer and published piece, “Why Boys Should Play Football,” are still cited by many.
Referred to as an iconic man with a heart of gold who loved his church and community, Coach Popp had an infectious laugh and cherished life. He never met a stranger, was unfailingly optimistic and consistently offered helpful words of encouragement. He was humbled by his successes and those of his family.
Honored for his numerous achievements, Coach Popp was named one of the Top 50 All-Time Athletes in Western Pennsylvania’s history and honored by the State Legislature of Pennsylvania. In his sixth year of coaching, he was named Coach of the Year. He was also inducted into three Halls of Fame – the Catawba College Hall of Fame, Pennsylvania’s Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame and the Mooresville Hall of Fame, where he was part of the first class of inductees. In 2009, Catawba College created an athletic scholarship in honor of Coach Popp.
Coach Popp’s wife Peggy meant everything to him. He often said they made the best team he ever knew – she was his “rock.” Often referred to as “the first lady of Mooresville,” Peggy was the perfect coach’s wife and homemaker. And, when their children were grown, Peggy opened several Mooresville and Cornelius businesses, helped restore and maintain historic downtown Mooresville, and received numerous awards and acknowledgements. Coach Popp was proud of his “one and only love” and sadly lost her unexpectedly last November when she suffered a fatal stroke. Coach and Peggy Popp were pillars of the community.
A very proud father and grandfather, Coach Popp gave his family many of the qualities necessary to lead successful and happy lives. Oldest son Joey is a well-known Charlotte journalist who contributes regularly to NBC news. He has hosted WTVI’s HealthWise on Charlotte’s PBS station and can also be heard weekly during NPR’s Weekend Edition on WFAE radio. Daughter Karen is a partner in a major international law firm, Sidley Austin, and former Associate White House Counsel to President Clinton. She serves as vice chair on the Board of Trustees for UNC Charlotte and is a member of the Steering Committee for the Charlotte 2012 Host Committee for the Democratic Convention being held in Charlotte. His youngest son Jimmy, a former football scholarship player at Michigan State, has coached in the college and professional ranks and is now the general manager of the Montreal Alouettes, a team that he has led to the Grey Cup (the CFL’s “Super Bowl”) eight times in eleven seasons. He was a top contender a few months ago for the Indianapolis Colts General Manager job. His grandchildren are honor roll students and are active in numerous sports and extra-curricular activities.
His children and grandchildren consider him their hero, best friend and staunchest supporter. His open-mindedness and encouragement made him the ideal father and grandfather and an outstanding teacher of life’s lessons.
Coach Popp is survived by his oldest son Joey and his spouse Catherine of Charlotte; daughter Karen, her spouse M.C. and twin sons William and Ben of Chapel Hill; and son Jim, his spouse Kim and children Hannah, Hayley, Preston, Hudson, Payton-James and Ella-Rae, of Mooresville. He is also survived by his eight brothers and sisters and their families: Delores Andrian of Westport, Connecticut; Robert Popp of Lansing, Michigan; William Popp of Iron Mountain, Michigan; Dan Popp of Denver, Colorado; Carol Jeffers Davidsville, Pennsylvania; Diane Malinovsky of Cleveland, Ohio; and Cliff Popp of Woodstock, Georgia.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Mooresville School Athletics-Coach Joe Popp Stadium. Donations can be addressed to MGSD-Coach Joe Popp Stadium Fund and sent to 305 N. Main Street, Mooresville, NC 28115; or to the Coach Joe Popp Athletic Scholarship at Catawba College. Donations can be made addressed to The Joe Popp Athletic Endowed Scholarship Fund, Catawba College, 2300 West Innes Street, Salisbury, NC 28144.
A celebration of Coach Popp’s life is being planned for Monday and Tuesday, July 23rd and 24th in Mooresville, NC. Visitation will be held from 4-7pm on Monday, July 23 at Cavin-Cook Funeral Home and Crematory, 464 East Plaza Drive, Mooresville. The funeral service will be held at 11:00am on Tuesday, July 24, at Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, 659 Carpenter Avenue, Mooresville. A processional in his honor will begin in downtown Mooresville at 12:45pm on Tuesday and will proceed down Main Street and then to the Coach Joe Popp Stadium at Mooresville Senior High School. All former football players and teammates are invited to be in the procession; to participate, please contact Bobby Compton at 704-664-5059 or firstname.lastname@example.org.