Jim Popp – the most successful General Manager in the CFL, discusses his early years and his ‘secrets’ for building a winning team for The Montreal Alouettes

Jim Popp is the only General Manager that The Montreal Alouettes Football Club has had since the team was re-constituted. With Jim at the helm, the team has reached the playoffs for 20 consecutive years and won four Grey Cups (one with the Baltimore Stallions in 2002). Jim has the most successful record of any CFL general manager, including his own twenty year tenure with the Alouettes. Today, Jim Popp is the Vice President and General Manager of The Montreal Alouettes; also serving as the club’s Director of Football Operations and Player Development.

Jim Popp

Jim Popp celebrating a Grey Cup win. The
Montreal Alouettes have been a dominant football team for 20 years with Jim Popp as GM
Photo: Rogerio Barbosa – Montreal Alouettes

Jim Popp grew up in a football family, with his father establishing a successful coaching record in high school, college and professional teams; both in the World Football League and the National Football League. “The Mooresville High School football team had a losing record of 32 consecutive games when my Dad was asked to take on the Head Coaching job. Within a year The Mooresville Blue Devils had an undefeated season and a year later won the State Championship. My mom was a success in business, running five businesses and so my sister and brother and I grew up in an achievement-oriented family. My brother is a successful television sports broadcaster and my sister is a successful attorney. She worked at the White House for the Attorney General during the Clinton administration and in addition to her law practice – she’s my agent. ” Jim is quick to credit his success at a relatively young age to the work ethic and organizational standards that his parents lived by in their home life and careers.

Jim played football at Mooresville High School and at Michigan State University before going on to work on the coaching and management side of the game. He was the General Manager of the Baltimore Stallions and was with the team when it won a Grey Cup in 1995. “Although we had a winning season, in 1996, the owner knew that we couldn’t compete with an NFL team in 1997, and Jim Speros moved the team to Montreal in 1997. I was the only management person retained when Robert Wetenhall bought the team in ’97, although I was able to resign the majority of the players.” At 29, Jim Popp was the youngest GM in the Canadian Football league.

“My mom managed businesses as if the money was her own, and I’ve always done the same thing. It’s one of the reasons that Bob Wetenhall and I have such a good relationship. We have an honest two-way trust and respect. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve kept the job for 20 years.”

Jim Popp

Alouettes Owner Robert Wetenhall asked Jim to replace Tom Higgins as Head Coach on August 21
Photo: Rogerio Barbosa – Montreal Alouettes

“There have been times when Mr. Wetenhall has asked me to step into the Head Coach’s job. Having worked in that capacity, I do understand coaching. It’s helped to bridge the transition to the new coach, and I believe that coaching has helped me to me a better GM.” Asked to expand on his success as a GM, Jim adds; “You can kind of grade yourself. There are currently 65 to 70 people – players and coaches – who are working for other teams. I’m proud that other teams think enough of our organization and our people that they recruit them.”

“We’re a family oriented organization, and we believe in giving people second and third chances. It’s not automatic, but we like to see if we should have another look at a player. We care about our players as people – and sometimes that means bringing in a bit of ‘tough love’. If a player is making some bad decisions off the field, I’ll take him aside and say, ‘We’re not going to let you do this to yourself.’ We’ll back you up – but you have to do your part.’ I’ve learned that the love all comes right back. I attended a twenty year reunion for the Stallions a couple of weeks ago during our by-week. A former player came up to me and thanked me for helping him; saying that our advice changed his life – for the better. He didn’t say that twenty years ago, but in hind sight he appreciated my advice.”

“We have a real interest in helping people better themselves. Football players can only play for so long – the average NFL career is just 2 ½ years. It’s a brutal sport, and you’re just an injury away from ending your career. So there’s a human element that I always keep in mind. I take personal satisfaction that we were able to help Andrew Hawkins. He was passed over by the NFL teams and out of football, even working as a caddy in the summer. We signed him in 2009, and he helped us win back-to-back Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010; before being signed to the NFL.” After playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, Hawkins signed a $13.6 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in March 2014. It was Jim Popp who recognized that Hawkins had real talent and offered him a second chance at pro football. It was The Alouettes’ GM who recognized that mixture of talent and determination.

“We have good chemistry in our locker room. We pay special attention to attitude when we recruit players. I can usually decide in ten minutes if it’s someone I want to be around.” The Alouettes prefer to draft promising players, rather than going to the free agent market. “The owner and I have the same philosophy, and we prefer to bring promising young players through our development programs. One of the questions we ask free agents is; ‘Why are you leaving a team where you already have a starting job?’ We have to ask ourselves if this guy is going to be any happier with us. That said – we still have to tweak our roster because of injuries or someone’s performance isn’t living up to our expectations. In this business, the coach, GM and owner have to get it right a lot more times than not.”

“We have a great group in football operations, and many of our people have been with us for ten and twenty years. That doesn’t mean it can’t be tough at times. Every year you have to send some guys home. I try to put myself in their shoes, asking myself; ‘What if that was me?’ They don’t want to be embarrassed, and while they still love you – they’re hurt.”

Jim Popp

Jim Popp enjoys talking with the fans on game days
Photo: Rogerio Barbosa – Montreal Alouettes

Jim travels extensively to evaluate college and professional players. This includes solid weeks of travel in August to attend NFL training camps. “I wouldn’t be able to do all this without the help and support of my wife Kim. We have six children, three boys and three girls, and their father is away for big chunks of time. They’re big fans of the team – and always asking if they can come up for some games. They ask early if they can come to the Grey Cup, and I tell ‘em that we have to get there first!”

“All six children are dual citizens and were born here in Montreal. For the first fifteen years of my career with the team – we lived here full time. Five years ago, my contract discussions were going a little slowly, and Bob Wetenhall suggested that I move back to North Carolina and commute. Our older kids were going into high school, and so we bought my parents’ home and got them settled in a smaller house. So I’m now raising my family in the house that I grew up in.”

“Sports is a great way to bring people together in any community. We’re in it together with The Canadiens and The Impact. It’s a release for people and makes people happy. It’s a good way to feel good about your city. I love it when fans come up to me and say, ‘I loved watching the team play today, we had a good time.’ Win or lose – if we play competitively, our fans are with us. I try to find players that will make our fans proud of the team.”

AlouettesContinuing on the theme of pride, Jim tells me something about the ‘away’ jerseys. “I had the idea of putting ‘Montreal’ on our jerseys for our road games. I wanted to other team and their fans to know who we are. I also wanted to piss ‘em off…”

“When you’re in a leadership position, you have a responsibility to explain the ‘why’ of the things we do here.” Referring back to his family and his upbringing, Jim states; “If you want respect – you have to treat others with respect. My parents were good at this. I was surrounded by people who had success, who worked hard and treated people properly.”

The Montreal Alouettes play their home games at Percival Molson Stadium. For information about tickets and schedules, please visit: www.montrealalouettes.com or call: 514-787-2525

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