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Popp continues standard of excellence in second act

Coach Jerry Popp 

By John Gillis 

For 29 years, Jerry Popp set an incredibly high standard of excellence in coaching the boys and girls cross country programs at Bowman (North Dakota) Bowman County High School.

As he has now entered the second act of his coaching career at Willmar (Minnesota) High School, his impact on the lives of young students and his success on the fields of competition are no less exemplary in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

From 1975 to 2003, Popp directed the Bowman Bulldogs’ distance running fortunes. His level of consistent success there was borderline amazing.

During those 29 seasons, the girls cross country program won 25 North Dakota High School Activities Association Class B state titles, and placed second the other four years. From 1979 to 1990, Popp led the Bulldogs to 12 consecutive state titles. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book, the 25 state titles ranks second all-time and the 12 consecutive ranks third. After a one-year respite from the top spot, the girls then reeled off a 10-year winning streak from 1992 to 2001. That streak ranks fifth in the Record Book.

The Bowman boys cross country program also enjoyed great success, as it won 15 state titles and was runner-up eight times, which works out to placing first or second 23 of the 29 years Popp coached the program.

From 1979 to 1983, both the boys and the girls won five consecutive cross country state titles. During the entire 29-year span, both programs won the state title the same year 13 times.

In the process, Popp developed many great individual runners at Bowman, as 20 of them won state titles and 300 earned all-state honors. Popp was also was a highly successful track coach, as he led the girls program to 22 conference titles, 18 region titles, six state titles and five runner-up finishes.

While Popp’s coaching success at Bowman was indeed extremely impressive, it almost didn’t happen.

“I fell into it by accident, as I went there to be a basketball coach,” Popp explained. “It was funny ‑ in 1975, they didn’t even have the sport of cross country at Bowman. We got seven boys out that first season, and we had to pay our own way to go to meets. I think we got seventh in the state that year, and we won our first state title in the program’s fourth year. Similar to how the boys program started, we had something like just eight or 10 girls out the first year.”

Despite the fact that Bowman was not a large-enrollment school, Popp was still able to successfully entice students to come out for cross country.

“Our enrollment was mostly in the 260 to 280 range, and we even got down to 170 to 180 at one point,” Popp explained. “However, we averaged around 30 or 40 kids out for cross country in any given year, and at our peak we had 60 to 70 kids. We had some good distance runners in the school and we were fortunate to get them to come out for cross country.”

Bowman County High School assistant
speech coach Eric Sondag and Popp
holding plaques for finishing as the runner-up
in the 1998 North Dakota High School
Activities Association State B speech

Not to be content with simply coaching sports, Popp also was a highly successful speech coach. He started the speech program at Bowman when he arrived in 1975 ‑ the same year he started the cross country program. He wasted little time fortifying the speech program as he coached the squad to 23 regional championships and 19 state titles. Along the way, he coached 55 individual state champions. In addition to speech, Popp also coached the one-act play and the musicals at Bowman.

Although one is considered to be an athletic activity and the other a performing arts activity, Popp sees little difference between coaching sports and teaching speech in terms of how the director approaches the students.

“This is my opinion,” Popp began. “When you are a teacher, you are also a coach. You’re teaching and coaching in a different venue ‑ just teaching a different thing.

“I think the success in one carried over to the other. Many of the athletes were also in speech and in the one-act play. The Bowman kids were hardworking kids who wanted to do everything well. It wasn’t work ‑ it was fun.

“We’d often practice the school musical from 9:00 p.m. to midnight, and we’d often have 60 kids in it. Many of those same kids were back practicing track at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. It was just a great environment.”

Fortunately for Popp, he did possess a background in speech prior to going to Bowman, as was a speech participant both in high school and in college.

“I attended Royalton High School and then went to Moorhead State University, both in Minnesota,” Popp said. “In high school, I made it to the state tournament and in college, I made it to the nationals.”

With a long career at Bowman on which to now reflect, a few specific memories stand out most for Popp.

“One year, our boys cross country team had six of the top finishers in the state meet,” Popp said. “Our team went undefeated that year. We were a Class B school, but we competed against many Class A schools.

“I got to coach all three of my kids (sons Grant and Mark and daughter Kristy) in track, cross country and basketball. That was really special. Doing that was the greatest experience of my life ‑ fantastic. We still talk about that all the time.”

Grant currently teaches math and coaches cross country and track at Waseca (Minnesota) High School. Mark, who is still early in his career with just four years experience, is a communications teacher and assistant track and cross country coach at Plymouth (Minnesota) Wayzata High School. Kristy, who had coached cross country at Iowa State University, recently turned down a job offer to coach at the University of California, Berkeley to focus on raising her family.

The matriarch of the Popp family is Barb, Jerry’s wife and mother of the three now-adult children. Given her extensive background with Jerry’s coaching career, Barb is clearly eminently qualified to serve in her position of Willmar High School’s activities department secretary.

“Barb is my best assistant coach,” Popp said. “We have been married since 1975, and Bowman was basically our honeymoon. I started there a week after we got married, and we ended up with a honeymoon that lasted 29 years. We loved it out there ‑ it was very hard to leave.”

After retiring from Bowman in 2003 and in an effort to get closer to family, Popp moved to Willmar High School. There, he wasted little time in weaving his usual coaching magic.

“We went to Willmar for the 2003-04 school year,” Popp said. “They had not won a meet the previous year. I was the assistant coach at first, but then moved up to co-head coach with a woman named Disa Daucsavage. The program needed some restructuring. We placed second in state the first year and won it the next two years.

Popp and his three children. 

“Disa gave birth to quadruplets and ended up not coaching or teaching. As such, I became head coach and have been ever since.”

As Popp made the move from a small school to a much larger school with more than 1,100 students, there were certain differences between the two.

“There’s a transition in that there are more kids from whom to recruit,” Popp explained. “You don’t know everybody in the school, but you try to get out in the hallways and try to get kids to come out for the team.

“Kids want to be in things ‑ they want to be part of something. If you can make something where kids have a successful activity, that’s what you want. Every person in life is built to be successful. If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be a teacher or a coach.”

Over the years, Popp received numerous recognitions. Among them, he was inducted into the North Dakota High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 1999 and into the National High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 2001, and was he named the NFHS National Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2002. Three years later, he was inducted into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame, the highest possible honor for anyone involved with high school athletics or performing arts activities.

“When I got inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame in San Antonio in 2005, I saw how few cross country coaches had been inducted prior to that time,” Popp said. “For that reason, I was very touched that I was chosen. Another one that stands out for me is being inducted into my high school’s hall of fame. It was cool to go back there and do that.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the kids on the teams. They are the hall of fame people.”

The Popp family (present day): Jen (Grant's wife),
Grant, Barb, Mark, Kristy and Jerry

John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at
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