Boise State cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich talks how he came to Boise and how he was reality TV’s “Tire Guy”
Coaches’ paths to success are often unique, and Jeff Popovich has taken one that no others can claim.
Boise State’s first-year cornerbacks coach took a pay cut to get into the profession. He is probably the only college football assistant to be an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Same goes for his reality TV experience.
"It's definitely unique," said former Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who worked closely with Popovich the past two seasons. "Sometimes it takes a little time to figure out what you're really good at."
Even if his journey to Boise State was circuitous, Popovich gathered one thing all good coaches have along the way — solid connections.
When the Broncos had a vacancy following Ashley Ambrose’s departure for Colorado in January, Pagano was actually in Boulder, Colo., visiting his family.
Pagano, who lives in Boise in the offseason and coached at Boise State in 1987 and 1988, spoke to Boise State coach Bryan Harsin about possibly visiting spring practices. Harsin and Pagano talked about the assistant job, and about how Harsin wanted someone with NFL experience.
“There were quite a few guys I spoke with … part of it was through coach Pagano, part of it was some of the guys that had been around him in college, and his name came up,” said Harsin, who hired Popovich on Feb. 15. “I think it’s important to find what you’re looking for. … We found the right fit.”
Popovich had spent the 2016-17 seasons with the Colts, first serving as Pagano’s assistant, then as a defensive quality control coach working with the secondary. The pair first got to know each other 20 years earlier, when Pagano coached defensive backs at Miami (Fla.), where Popovich played as a cornerback from 1996-99.
“We needed guys like Jeff,” Pagano said. “We were on probation, had a ton of scholarships taken away. He came in as a walk-on, he was a great teammate, an incredibly bright guy. He had a ton of energy, and that never changed. When I had a position open two years ago, he was very persistent for a job that basically was like earning combat pay.”
In 48 games with the Hurricanes, Popovich started 11 times and was a three-time Big East All-Academic Team selection. But he may have been most known back then for his side gig as a model. He and his brother, Dug, were part of Abercrombie’s summer 1999 catalog, appearing on the store’s bags and on posters.
“We joked with him a lot about it. He took his fair share of shots,” Pagano said. “When I was in Baltimore, Rex Ryan had a saying: You need skin like an armadillo, not baby deer skin. Jeff has that. Those modeling pictures popped up from time to time in team meetings, but he was always a great sport about it.”
Popovich spent time on the Buccaneers’ and Falcons’ preseason rosters in 2000 and 2001, and played for the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe in 2001. He tried to continue playing, getting some workout opportunities, but in 2002 got an unexpected call.
Producers from a new reality television show had asked Dug to be on, but he declined since he was dating someone, recommending his brother instead. Jeff was intrigued, and he was chosen as one of 25 guys on the first season of “The Bachelorette.”
Popovich was among those eliminated during the second week of the show’s six-week run but still was memorable. On a group date, the camper being used got a flat tire. Popovich sprung into action, removing his shirt in the process. Thus, “Tire Guy” was born.
“Everyone was sitting around waiting for the producers to call AAA or whoever they were going to call, so I decided to take matters into my own hands,” said Popovich, today married with two daughters.
With his short-lived television career behind him, Popovich was in training camp with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes but did not play. He took a job doing marketing for a computer consulting firm, and that lasted about two years – but he wasn’t done with football. He called then-Miami coach Larry Coker, who brought him on as a graduate assistant in 2005, starting Popovich’s coaching career.
“I liked the job, but it didn't feel like what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Popovich said.
Pagano joked that whether it was that early career path or using his biomedical engineering degree, “Jeff could be making a bunch of money, but football is his passion.” Popovich coached defensive backs at Florida International from 2007 to 2012 under former Miami standout and current Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, then coached cornerbacks at UTSA under Coker from 2013 to 2015.
He said learning from the likes of Pagano, Coker, Cristobal and current Temple head coach Geoff Collins has helped him working with the Broncos’ cornerbacks.
“Those guys are learning a ton right now,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
Sophomore cornerback Avery Williams said he already has picked up new techniques from Popovich, and the coach's energetic style has led to very few transition issues.
“He’s brought great vibes with the knowledge he has and his background,” senior cornerback Tyler Horton said. “He’s always pushing us, no matter what. He talks to me like someone who hasn’t played a snap. He shows everyone the same love, the same amount of respect.”
Pagano, after a recent spring practice, said “it was awesome seeing (Popovich) run around on that blue turf. I know he likes it there, he fits in, and he’s going to do a great job.”
Back in the college ranks after two years in the pros, Popovich is enjoying the hands-on approach of being a position coach again.
“It’s just been a blast not just getting to know the players, but this program. It’s phenomenal,” Popovich said. “… Hopefully I can contribute a lot to it, bring some stuff and coach these guys up."