After he was a star football player at Sabino High School and before he was the cornerbacks coach at UTSA, Jeff Popovich was the Tire Guy.
Not because he was the go-to man at the local tire shop or because he was big into cars, nothing that logical. Popovich owes that nickname to “The Bachelorette.”
Quick history lesson: In 2003, Popovich, after two years in the NFL and a couple more trying to extend his football career in any league he could find, decided to try out for the long-running reality show.
He made it, and in one episode, was filmed fixing a flat tire on the car that was taking him and the bachelorette to a date. The Sabino graduate took off his shirt, fixed the tire and boom — the Tire Guy was born.
Ten years have since passed for Popovich, who will return to his old hometown Saturday when the Roadrunners take on the UA.
“It went on for a few years, where I was called Tire Guy all the time,” Popovich said. “Now, enough episodes and seasons have passed that I’ve been tossed into the doldrums of past reality shows. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but at least it’s there.”
A lot has changed in Popovich’s life since his days as a reality TV star.
He’s now married — not to the bachelorette — and he and his wife, Lara, have two daughters, Sayle, 2, and Copeleigh, 6 months.
He’s in his first year at UTSA after six years as an assistant at Florida International. Now, after years of dreaming about it, Popovich will return to Tucson and set foot in Arizona Stadium for the first time as a competitor.
“I keep telling him, ‘The only reason we’re playing this game is because of you,’ ” UTSA coach Larry Coker said. “That isn’t true, but makes for a good joke. I think it’s a great opportunity for him and I know he’s excited about it and wants us to play well and compete.”
Following his career as a standout quarterback for coach Jeff Scurran at Sabino, Popovich walked on at Miami (Fla.). He was a four-year contributor as a receiver, defensive back and special teams ace.
After his playing career, 15 minutes of fame on TV and a couple of years working for an engineering consulting firm in California, Popovich decided to try his hand at coaching. He called Coker, his former offensive coordinator and head coach at Miami, and asked if there were any graduate assistant openings on his staff.
There weren’t. But, Coker told his former pupil that he would keep him in mind and if a spot opened up, he could call. Three months later, Popovich’s phone rang; Coker had an opening.
The former Sabercat picked up and moved from California to Florida to begin his journey as a coach.
After two seasons with the Hurricanes as a GA, Popovich made the move to full-time coach at Florida International. Following last season, FIU head coach Mario Cristobal was fired and Popovich wasn’t sure what was next.
He was in contact with Coker, who, again didn’t have any openings, but was also told by new FIU coach Ron Turner — an assistant at Arizona from 1978 to 1980 — that he planned on keeping Popovich on staff.
It didn’t last. After securing his 2013 recruiting class, Turner let Popovich go. By that time, Coker had a spot on his UTSA staff after his cornerbacks coach left.
“He’s pretty much saved me twice,” Popovich said of Coker. “I was very fortunate to get on board here. There’s no doubt things happen for a reason. It’s interesting how everything went down and how the chips fell. I’m very happy to be working for Coach Coker again.”
Added Coker: “He’s an outstanding person. He’s a great family guy. Football-wise, he’s a technician. He’s great with the kids and he’s a tremendous worker. I didn’t like how it worked out for him at FIU, but that’s the business side of it. He makes us better.”
Popovich said his ticket request for Saturday’s game is already at 30 and could climb. His mom and dad, Mike and Alexis, still live in Tucson and are adding to the request list daily.
“Growing up in Tucson, it’s always been a dream of mine to be on that field and be a part of that tradition that the U of A has,” Popovich said. “I went to as many Larry Smith and Dick Tomey camps as I could. They would let you run around the field then and that’s the only time I’ve ever been on it.
“It was truly a great experience to grow up there and be an Arizona fan as a young kid.”