Kate Popovec knew long before she finished her fifth season at Northwestern that she wanted basketball to be a part of her life after college. When chronic injuries eliminated the possibility of play professionally, she realized coaching was her calling.
So, she coached high school teams, participated in NCAA programs that help athletes learn coaching skills and talked with head coach Joe McKeown about her coaching aspirations.
“Coach McKeown said when I left, ‘Don’t worry, Pop, we want you back at Northwestern someday,’” she said.
"Someday" came sooner than expected. Just a year after she left Northwestern and accepted a job as Director of Basketball Operations at LaSalle University, McKeown called. A new position was created at Northwestern, and the ‘Cats urged Popovec to apply. She interviewed and was offered the job as Northwestern’s Director of Player Development.
“I work a lot with their community service activities and formulating goals for them as a player, as a student and I like to say as a person too,” Popovec said. “What they [the players'] want out of their Northwestern experience.”
She cannot directly coach the team in practice or games, but she can work behind the scenes with coaches, a privilege she says will help her take the next step in her coaching career.
“It was so easy to make the choice to come back,” Popovec said. “I loved it here and I still love it here.”
Today, Popevec bleeds purple, but she didn’t start out as a Wildcat. She transferred from the University of Pittsburgh, enticed by Northwestern’s mix of strong academics and Big Ten athletics.
“What drew me here the most was the people and the passion that everyone had for the student-athlete experience,” she said. “It wasn’t just about winning on the court, it was winning off the court and having a great time while doing everything.”
The experience she had as a Northwestern athlete makes it easier for her to relate to the women on the basketball team. After all, she was on the court just a year and a half ago.
“Everyone talks about how the Northwestern experience is so unique and you can’t understand it until you live it,” Popevec said. “Coach will always say, ‘Pop’s blood is on this court.’”
But her youth could work both ways, potentially making it difficult for her former teammates to take her seriously in her new position. Popevec says being an upperclassman and a team captain when the current juniors and seniors were freshmen makes the transition easier.
“It was funny, the girls will joke that I’m doing the same thing I did as a fifth year, it’s just now I’m getting paid for it,” she said.
Senior Karly Roser says Popovec’s personality is the same, but they have a different relationship now.
“She’s still very friendly and we can have those inside jokes and talk about that happened when we were freshmen,” Roser said. “Since day one, I think we’ve respected her and she wants to be seen as a professional.”
Popovec is proud of how far the girls and the program have come, noting their goals for the season are higher than ever before.
“My goal for them is to maintain that championship mentality and maintain that hunger and fire as the season grinds on because they have the talent,” she said.
Like most athletes, Popovec is always setting more goals for herself. Her long-term goal is to delve deeper into coaching, but for now she wants to learn as much as possible from the basketball and athletics staff.
“I’m 24 and working in the Big Ten so I have a lot to learn,” Popovec said. “Coach always talks about me staying true to who I am and making my own mark. That’s something I have an opportunity to do in a brand new role, to kind of pave the way.”