Ahead of the Game

How Jim Popp helped build the CFL’s Montréal Alouettes from expansion team to perennial contender

Following the Alouettes’ 2009 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Jim Popp hoists the highly coveted Grey Cup. Popp’s teams have won four during his tenure.
Following the Alouettes’ 2009 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Jim Popp hoists the highly coveted Grey Cup. Popp’s teams have won four during his tenure.

More than 30 years later, Jim Popp still remembers the date: Friday, April 13, 1984. He remembers his status: he was a redshirt freshman at Michigan State University. He remembers thinking of his father’s frequently cited maxim: “You’re only one injury away from a career-ending injury.”  Most of all, though, he remembers the pain: a hit to the leg and—boom—he tore three ligaments in his knee, the first major injury of his promising, gifted career.

“I honestly thought I was going to be a professional athlete,” Popp says. “I excelled at four sports in high school and either had scholarship offers or a chance to turn pro immediately. I never believed anything other than that.” The injury kept him sidelined for more than a year and a half, though, and while he worked hard to rehabilitate his body and get back on the field, he also took time to reflect and to expand his horizons. It made him think about something else his father was fond of saying: “You would be a great coach someday.” Popp took those words to heart, and he has since become one of the most successful general managers in the Canadian Football League’s history.

Popp took the most direct route back into the game that he could find. “When I realized I may not end up a pro athlete, I fast-tracked myself in school,” he says, and to keep himself connected to football, he took a position as an undergraduate assistant coach under George Perles and Nick Saban. He earned his telecommunications degree in just three and a half years, and as soon as he graduated, he started sending out résumés for coaching positions. Within two weeks, two places had offered him positions, and he decided to head to the University of North Carolina to work under coach Dick Crum.

In 1991, he had his first coaching opportunity with a professional team, the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks. Unfortunately, the franchise was part of the now-defunct World League of American Football (later renamed NFL Europe), and after only a year, the franchise folded, leaving Popp out of a job. He then helped start a new football league called the Professional Spring Football League (PSFL), where he earned his first front-office position, serving as director of player personnel. Dan Rambo, a CFL GM at the time, was intrigued by how organized Popp was at running a tryout camp of more than 650 players in Texas while overseeing a staff of 35 people. Rambo told Popp that if the PSFL didn’t pan out, he should give him a call. So when the league folded, Rambo put Popp in touch with GM Alan Ford and head coach Don Matthews of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where Popp became a coach and director of player personnel for two years. Then, in 1994, during the CFL’s expansion into the United States, he accepted a general manager position with the Baltimore Stallions. It was there, in 1995, that he won his first Grey Cup.

Through the Years with Jim Popp

1983
Attends Michigan State University on a football scholarship

1987
Accepts his first coaching job away from Michigan State at the University of North Carolina

1991
Begins his first job with a professional team: the World League of American Football’s Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, alongside NFL great Roman Gabriel

1992
Is named director of player personnel for the PSFL, an expansion league, working closely with former NFL coach and player Al Michaels; moves to Canada to work with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders with legendary coach Don Matthews

1994
Takes on first general manager role with the Baltimore Stallions—considered by many as the most successful expansion franchise in pro sports history—during the CFL’s expansion into the US; guides the team all the way to its first Grey Cup appearance

1995
Wins his first Grey Cup

1996
Transfers to Montréal to reestablish the Alouettes franchise after a nine-year absence from professional football

2000
Leads the organization to its first Grey Cup appearance

2002
Leads the Alouettes to its first Grey Cup victory since its reestablishment

2009–2010
Wins back-to-back Grey Cups, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in more than a decade

2011
Is named Executive of the Year at Canada’s Media Sports Awards

2013
The Chicago Bears hire head coach Marc Trestman from the Alouettes, another one of Popp’s finds

“Our team was very successful in Baltimore,” Popp says. “But after the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens moved to town, ownership and the league decided we should put a team back in Montréal.” Popp had the choice of either taking a job offer with the Toronto Argonauts or joining the expansion team in Montréal to try to rebuild it from scratch. “I had been with so many expansion and start-up teams that building from nothing had become my signature,” he says. “I was intrigued and excited. I wanted that challenge. So I ended up in Montréal, ready for that challenge.”

It was the second time the Montréal Alouettes franchise—which had previously folded in 1987—was being resurrected, and the CFL as a whole was on shaky ground but poised for a comeback. Popp had only five months to get a team ready to play for the 1996 season, but he and the organization defied expectations and became an immediate success, winning 12 or more games in seven of their first eight seasons.

Getting the business side of the franchise up to speed was slower going, however. In those early years, the team lacked corporate sponsors, and its number of season-ticket holders was less than 2,000. After the first year, the original ownership went out the door, and current owner Robert Wetenhall stepped in. According to Popp, the things that Wetenhall and the Alouettes did to generate more business were pretty standard for a CFL team: they got close to fans, provided a unique experience, and created events in the community to generate franchise support. For instance, because of Québec’s high student-dropout rate, the Alouettes created a stay-in-school program called Adopt an Alouette, now known as Together at School. More than 500 football programs in the area have been involved, and so have three universities.

Today, as the team’s vice president, general manager, director of football operations, and director of player personnel, Popp not only creates the team that hits the field but also connects the players with the ownership. During the season, Popp oversees more than 100 employees, acting as a contract negotiator, teacher, scout, and decision maker. “I really look at myself as a problem solver and arbitrator,” he says. “I’m constantly negotiating from both ends of the business.” This entails balancing the needs of players and agents alongside the needs of the team’s owner.

The team’s record under Popp’s leadership speaks for itself: the Alouettes have had 19 straight playoff appearances, 15 division championship games, 8 Grey Cup appearances, and 3 Grey Cup wins since the 1996 reboot. “It’s very abnormal what we’ve accomplished,” Popp says, “and I stress that to everybody.” Having been with the organization through multiple presidents, head coaches, and owners, Popp likens his own experience to that of watching a child grow up. “No matter how much success we’ve had, we don’t want to be complacent,” he says. “We want to continue to grow.”

Over the same period of time, Popp has been able to watch his six children grow up. He married his wife around the same time that he moved to Montréal, and the idea of family remains important to him. His mother was a successful businessperson, his father worked as a football coach at several levels of competition, and their wisdom has had a direct impact on how he approaches his job. “I understand business, so I approach the job each day as though I own the business,” he says. “I would want my employees to do the same, if I were the owner. As an organization, one of the biggest things for the Alouettes is to be a family.” This mind-set helps him and the organization treat people with dignity and focus on their community.

“I often get asked, ‘What keeps you in Montréal? What do you have left to accomplish?’” Popp says. “To me, every year is different—you start from scratch—so I look at it as we haven’t accomplished anything. We want to set new standards, so we have a lot we can accomplish. What I want to do is stay on top, be an innovator, be a contributor, help people be better. It’s a difficult challenge to overcome. You really have to be good at hiring the right people, pushing the right buttons, constantly reinventing yourself to keep up with the changing times, while never moving far from the foundation of what has made you successful.”

Such a Sisyphean task doesn’t dispirit Popp; it inspires him. “In this league,” he says, “we stand up and take on the challenge every year and prove, as a leader in the league, that we can do it again.”