Popovich is considered one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. He is currently tied with Phil Jackson with a record 20 consecutive winning seasons. He has won five NBA championships as a head coach (all with the Spurs), a feat achieved only by four others in NBA history (Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, and John Kundla). He is also one of nine coaches to have won 1,000 NBA games.
Popovich was born in East Chicago, Indiana on January 28, 1949, to a Serb father and Croat mother. He started his basketball career playing Biddy Basketball and was on the 1960 Gary Biddy Basketball All-Star Team which finished third in the World Tournament, held at Gary's Memorial Auditorium. He attended Merrillville High School and graduated in 1970 from the United States Air Force Academy. He played basketball for four seasons at the Academy and in his senior year was the team captain and the leading scorer. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Soviet Studies, and he underwent Air Force intelligence gathering and processing training. At one point, Popovich considered a career with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Popovich served five years of required active duty in the United States Air Force, during which he toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team. In 1972, he was selected as captain of the Armed Forces Team, which won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship. This earned him an invitation to the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team trials.
Popovich returned to the Air Force Academy as an assistant coach in 1973 under head coach Hank Egan, a position he held for six years. Egan would later become an assistant coach under Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs.
During his time with the coaching staff of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Popovich attended the University of Denver and earned his master's degree in physical education and sports sciences. In 1979, he was named the head basketball coach of Pomona-Pitzer's men's team. Popovich coached Pomona-Pitzer men's basketball from 1979 to 1988, leading the team to its first outright title in 68 years.
During his time as head coach at Pomona-Pitzer, Popovich became a disciple and later a close friend of head coach Larry Brown at the University of Kansas. Popovich took off the 1985–1986 season at Pomona-Pitzer to become a volunteer assistant at Kansas, where he could study directly under Brown. Popovich returned to Pomona-Pitzer and resumed his duties as head coach the next season.
Following the 1987–88 season, Popovich joined Larry Brown as the lead assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. From 1988 to 1992, Popovich was the top assistant under Brown, before the entire staff (including R. C. Buford, Alvin Gentry and Ed Manning) were fired by owner Red McCombs. Popovich moved to the Golden State Warriors for a brief stint in 1992, serving as an assistant under future Hall of Famer Don Nelson and bringing with him Avery Johnson, who had been cut by the Spurs.
In 1994, Popovich returned to San Antonio as the general manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations after current owner Peter Holt purchased the team. Popovich's first move was to sign Avery Johnson to become the team's starting point guard. Another one of Popovich's early moves in San Antonio was to trade Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls for Will Perdue. Rodman was not fond of Popovich, as Rodman said in his first book Bad As I Wanna Be.
After the Spurs went out to a 3–15 start in the 1996–97 season, with David Robinson sidelined with a preseason back injury, Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and named himself head coach. However, Robinson broke his foot after only six games and was lost for the season. Sean Elliott was also limited to 39 games due to injury, and Chuck Person and Vinny Del Negro also missed significant time. With a reduced roster that included an aging Dominique Wilkins, the Spurs struggled and won only 17 games for the remainder of the season for an overall record of 20–62. However, the Spurs' disastrous season allowed them to win the first overall pick in the NBA Lottery, which they used to draft Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest University. The Spurs blossomed as 6'11" Duncan teamed up with the 7'1" David Robinson to give them a "Twin Tower" offense and defense for several years. After recovering to win 56 games in Duncan's rookie year and Popovich's first full year as coach, the Spurs came all the way back in 1999 to win their first NBA title.
In 2002, Popovich relinquished his position as general manager to R. C. Buford, who had served as the team's head scout. Popovich and Buford were both given their starts in the NBA in 1988 as assistants on Brown's coaching staff with the Spurs.
Popovich has won five championships with the Spurs—1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. He was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2003, 2012, and 2014.
Popovich earned his 500th career victory on March 2, 2006, becoming the fourth fastest coach in NBA history to reach that milestone. He led the team to a 63–19 season in 2006, which set a new franchise season record.
On April 4, 2008, Popovich returned to the U.S. Air Force Academy to receive the academy's award of Distinguished Graduate. Despite his four NBA titles at the time, Popovich said it was the most meaningful award he had ever received.
Popovich won his 100th playoff game on May 19, 2008, in a road game against the New Orleans Hornets. The win tied him for third place in all-time playoff coaching victories with his friend and mentor, Larry Brown.
On May 2, 2012, Popovich won his second coach of the year award for the 2011–12 NBA season.
On November 29, 2012, Popovich sat out starters Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, and Danny Green for a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. Popovich has frequently sat out his starters on road trips over the years to ensure they have enough rest for the playoffs; the Spurs are one of the oldest teams in the league. NBA commissioner David Stern was outraged when he learned of this and said on the night of the game that the Spurs' actions were "unacceptable," and "substantial sanctions [would] be forthcoming." On November 30, Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for what he called "a disservice to the league and the fans." According to Stern, Popovich had not informed the Heat, the league or the media in a suitable time-frame that the four players were not making the trip to Miami. Stern's decision was criticized by commentators such as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, who said, "Stern doesn't care about the realities of his league, just the appearances. To him, the appearance on Thursday night was that Popovich had tried to embarrass him on national television and that's why the commissioner tossed that tantrum."
On March 22, 2013, Popovich became the second head coach in NBA history to win 900 regular-season games with one team when the Spurs beat the Utah Jazz after the Jazz's own Jerry Sloan.
Popovich led the Spurs to the 2013 NBA Finals to face the Miami Heat. The series lasted seven games, but the Spurs lost the series to give Popovich his first Finals loss of his coaching career.
On April 22, 2014, Popovich was awarded the Red Auerbach Trophy as he won the NBA Coach of the Year for the third time in his career. He would also win his fifth NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs that same season, beating the Miami Heat 4–1 in the Finals. Popovich's record in the Finals is 5–1.
On February 9, 2015, Popovich became the ninth coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games when the Spurs defeated the Indiana Pacers 95–93. He and Jerry Sloan are the only two coaches in NBA history to win 1,000 games with one franchise.
On August 1, 2015, Popovich served as Team Africa's head coach at the 2015 NBA Africa exhibition game.
In the 2016 basketball season, Popovich led the Spurs to a franchise high 67 wins, however he and the team lost in the second round of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder (4–2).
On February 4, 2017, Popovich recorded his 1,128th win with one franchise, surpassing Jerry Sloan.
Popovich served on the coaching staff for the U.S. national team in the 2002 FIBA World Championship (assisting George Karl), the 2003 FIBA America Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament and the 2004 Olympic Games, where the U.S. won a bronze medal.
On October 23, 2015, Popovich was named head coach of the U.S. men's national team, taking over from then-current head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the 2016 Olympic Games.
On multiple occasions, Popovich has spoken out on behalf of social justice issues, including the Women's March. He has also vocally criticized Donald Trump. Popovich is married and he and his wife, Erin, have two children.