Jim Popp wears many hats with the Montreal Alouettes, but one of his biggest tasks is finding and developing talented players – a search that has taken him all over the United States and Canada.
However, Popp’s latest player hunt came a little closer to home.
The Alouettes – one of the Canadian Football League’s most storied teams – held their final U.S. open tryouts on May 7 at Mooresville High School’s Coach Joe Popp Stadium.
The tryouts drew more than 160 prospects – most of them recent college grads, but some with past CFL and NFL experience – for daylong drills and testing similar to those at the annual NFL Combine.
“We’ve done this here the past six years, but we’ve always had tryouts in this area,” said the 51-year-old Popp, who has been with the Alouettes as head coach, vice president, general manager and/or director of player personnel since 1994, beginning in the franchise’s days as the Baltimore Stallions.
“We have five camps a year across the U.S. – we go to Texas, California, Ohio, Florida and here in North Carolina to end it – before we go into our training camp” on May 29 at Bishop’s University in Sherbrook, Quebec.
How did the Alouettes come to hold one of their open tryouts in Mooresville?
Because Popp is a 1983 Mooresville High graduate, and still lives just a couple blocks away from the stadium named for his father, in the home that his father raised his family when they first moved to the area.
“I grew up in that home, and now I live in that home,” Popp said.
The elder Popp, who died in 2012 at age 82, led Mooresville High to its only state championship in football (the old Western North Carolina High School Athletic Association title in 1961), and was part of the inaugural class of inductees into the school’s athletics hall of fame in 2005.
Joe Popp went on to coach at North Carolina, George Washington, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, then – after a brief return to the Blue Devils’ sidelines in the mid-1970s – Popp jumped to the pro ranks, working with the Cleveland Browns until his retirement in 1991.
Jim Popp’s football career began with the Blue Devils – he was also named to Mooresville High’s athletics hall of fame in 2008 – and carried him to Michigan State. After three years as a wide receiver and defensive back, he moved into coaching in 1986 with the Spartans.
After assistant coaching positions at North Carolina in 1987 and The Citadel for three years (1988-1990), Popp stepped up to the pro ranks in 1991 as an assistant coach with the Raleigh franchise in the World League of American Football.
Popp’s first experience with the Canadian Football League came in 1992, when he spent two years as an assistant coach and director of player personnel with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 1994, he became general manager and director of player personnel with the Stallions, the first (and only) U.S.-based CFL franchise.
When the Stallions moved out of Baltimore to Montreal and became the Alouettes (a team that had played in the CFL from 1946-1986 before shutting down), so did Popp.
He’s been with the team ever since, and along the way has had a hand in winning four Grey Cups, the CFL’s championship trophy (in 1994 with the Stallions, and in 2000, 2009 and 2010 with the Alouettes).
That’s why he was at Popp Stadium along with the Alouettes’ scouting staff – to find the talent that can play in the CFL, and potentially move on to the NFL.
“This is a dream for a lot of people, and their last chance,” Popp said. “If we can find one player out of this camp, it was a success. The key is if we can find that one guy.
“It’s football – some different rules, a bigger field, but it’s still the same game. We hope to find a diamond in the rough, and fulfill some people’s dreams. Like I said, if we find one guy out of this camp, we’ve been successful.”
Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: BKiserCLTObs@gmail.com.