How assistant coach Kate Popovec has helped women's basketball rise from unranked to Big Ten champs.

Photo by Maren Kranking

“Enjoy the beauty of becoming,” reads the quote at the top of Coach Kate Popovec’s personal blog. Scroll around, and you’ll encounter reflections on self-improvement, living in the moment, women who inspire her and more. Accompanying those pieces is a selection of quotes from Kobe Bryant and Geno Auriema to Kehlani and India.Arie.

“‘A girl should be two things:’” wrote Popovec on International Women’s Day in 2018, quoting Coco Chanel. “‘Who and what she wants.’”

For Popovec, so far, so good. She is the defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator as an assistant coach for the Northwestern women’s basketball team. The Wildcats are enjoying their best season in years, clinching the Big Ten championship title and in line for a March Madness berth. Much of that success can be attributed to the suffocating defense Popovec oversees. The team ranks 26th in the nation in scoring defense, 12th in turnovers forced per game and 21st in steals.

The head coach, Joe McKeown, credits much of the team’s defensive success to Popovec and her knowledge of both the system and the team.

“She bleeds purple, and that was a big thing for us,” McKeown says.

Despite receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern in 2013, Popovec didn’t don purple until halfway through her collegiate career. She transferred after her sophomore season at the University of Pittsburgh, drawn to Northwestern’s academics and the program’s penchant for producing high- level, front-court talent. But beyond the court and the classroom, Popovec felt drawn to the Midwest for another reason.

“You’re looking for a different thing than you were the first time [you apply], and I was really attracted to the family feel,” Popovec says. “Now they can’t get rid of me.”

Though injuries marred her two years as a player for the Wildcats, Popovec’s interest in coaching blossomed. McKeown and the staff got her involved behind the scenes, grooming Popovec for her first job as the director of basketball operations at La Salle University. After a brief return to Northwestern in 2014 as director of player development, Popovec spent a year at Colgate University as an assistant coach. She returned to Evanston after the ’16-’17 season, accepting the same role on the Wildcats’ staff before being promoted to her current role.

“It was always my dream to come back and be an assistant, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” Popovec says. “When you see alumni come back and work for programs, it speaks to the experience they had here.”

As defensive coordinator, Popovec is a liaison between McKeown and his players. On defense, the Wildcats run a system called Blizzard. It typically takes first-years a full season to learn this scheme, which is unique to Northwestern. This makes Popovec integral as the student-turned-teacher with experience on both sides of the system.

“I had played in it, which helped me a lot,” Popovec says. “I am the one who emphasizes what [McKeown]’s looking for and breaks down the specifics, but it’s obviously a team and staff effort.”

Fourth-year forward Abi Scheid and fourth-year center Abbie Wolf remember when Blizzard caused more problems than it solved. Wolf says the team even scrapped the whole system during their second year. But when Popovec came in as defensive coordinator the following season and helped reinstate the system, Scheid says the defense began to run more smoothly.

“She just developed these relationships [with the players] and I think that helped her in coaching them,” M c K e o w n says. “She knew [Blizzard] from a player standpoint and how to explain it, and that’s half the battle.”

Popovec assumes control of practice when it’s time to work on defense. Squatting at midcourt with a whistle in her mouth and a scouting report tucked under her arm, Popovec runs the team through game-scenarios. Her instructions distill hours of scouting and preparation into concise, digestible points for her players.

“I put her in charge of a lot of our defensive schemes and how we prepare for each team, how we’re going to stop certain players,” McKeown says. “I think she’s really evolved into taking it from the five-on-five standpoint but also breaking down the individual matchups within it, which is important.”

Coach Popovec’s tough love is appreciated by her players. Scheid says Popovec’s experiences as a student-athlete help her provide valuable perspectives and advice. Wolf, who spent her first three seasons coming off the bench before moving into a starting role as a senior, says Popovec aided her in “staying the course” the last few years. She helped Wolf boil her role down to three key points: rebound, run and defend.

“Her veins might be popping out and her face is red ... but it’s all out of love and passion,” Wolf says. “You want a coach that really puts her whole self into it just like we’re expected to do on the floor.”

Though the “beauty of becoming” Coach Kate Popovec is relatively new, the title is here to stay. And though more titles surely await, “Pop” is not too concerned with what those might be. Instead, her focus remains on finishing the task at hand.

“These girls are so deserving of everything that’s come their way because they’ve worked and they’ve believed,” Popovec says. “It felt like they were winning even when they weren’t [in seasons past], because the kids believed.”