John Popovich of WCPO inducted into the Buddy LaRosa's High School Sports Hall of Fame

Posted at 12:01 PM, Jun 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-25 12:04:20-04

CINCINNATI -- WCPO Sports Director John Popovich has always been a true friend of the area's high school sports scene.

His passion for high school sports began in his native Struthers, Ohio. The porch of the family home was 10 seconds from the Struthers High School football field.

As a youngster, he'd wake up and hear the band or the team practice through the open windows of the house (there was no air conditioning).

He'd hear the coach yell instructions. He was immersed in the sights and sounds of fall. 

"There is something about that," Popovich said in an interview last week. "I love high school sports."

On Sunday afternoon, Popovich will become just the second journalist in 42 years to be inducted into the Buddy LaRosa’s High School Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony at WCET studios.

Popovich will receive the Lifetime Media Achievement award at the 42nd annual Hall of Fame induction in front of family, friends, colleagues and a large audience of the high school sports community.

"I think it's one of the coolest things," Popovich said. "Because it's strictly high school sports and strictly Cincinnati. It fits into my wheelhouse."

In honoring Popovich, the Hall of Fame committee said he may have done more to promote Greater Cincinnati high school sports than any one athlete or coach over the last 40 years.

“He’s a genuine person,” Moeller basketball coach Carl Kremersaid. “He understands the spirit of high school sports. He’s treated high school sports in a first-class fashion.”

Popovich's work speaks for itself. But it's his approachable style and character that elevates his reputation to another level in the eyes of coaches and student-athletes.

“When I think of John Popovich two words instantly come to mind,” said Ohio State Assistant Football Coach Kerry Coombs, who coached Colerain High School for 16 seasons.

“The first is professional. I always felt like John was completely ethical and dealt with everyone he came in contact with in a first-class manner. It did not matter whether you were a high school football coach or the coach of the Bengals. John treated you the same. The second is gentleman. John always has an eager smile, a kind word and genuinely seems to care about you when he interviews you. The LaRosa’s Hall of Fame could not have made a better selection.”

Joe Quinn, the former high school sports editor of the former Cincinnati Post, was among the first inductees of the hall in 1975 and is the only other media member.

Former WCPO sports anchor Dennis Janson, Popovich's colleague for 30-plus years, said Popovich is first class in everything he's completed in his career. Janson said Popovich always enjoyed covering high school sports because he gave every bit of effort in his own work at WCPO. 

Popovich likes to keep focus on the task at hand and is superb at storytelling on a newscast, Janson said.

"Popo always has a plan," Janson said. "He always manages to reconfigure for any situation."

In 1980, Popovich launched a Sunday-night feature called “Sports of All Sorts.” He was told it wouldn’t last more than 13 weeks. Thirty-seven years and hundreds of high school sports’ features later, it is still going strong.

"John -- he was great for high school sports at a time when high school sports really needed a champion in the press," said former longtime Princeton head football coach Pat Mancuso. "He always kept it in the news."

Popovich also produced and hosted “The Sports Rush” for six years (2001-2007) -- a Saturday night sports’ show totally dedicated to high school sports. He co-anchored the show with Katherine Nero and then Paula Faris after Nero moved to news.

“He’s always upbeat, positive and professional,” Elder baseball coach Mark Thompson said. “I have nothing but positive things to say about him and the coverage he’s provided over the years. He keeps things lighthearted and really puts you at ease during interviews with him.”

“Popo” has won six regional Emmy Awards for reporting, as well as numerous honors from Sigma Delta Chi, the Radio-TV News Directors Association and the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

There are countless memories over the decades. "Popo" likes recalling the Moeller versus Princeton football games of the 1980s, Colerain's 2004 state football title in Canton and the famous Roger Bacon upsetof LeBron James-led Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in the 2002 state basketball final.

“I have always appreciated John’s enthusiasm and professionalism when it comes to covering high school sports," said Tim Stried, OHSAA's director of communications. "In some of our large cities, high school sports just don’t get much attention, but that hasn’t been the case in Cincinnati thanks to the effort of people like John.”

Popovich was honored for his contributions to amateur football in 2007 by the National Football Foundation’s Greater Cincinnati Chapter. In 2011, he was inducted into the Silver Circle of the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

"What I always liked about John was that he covered the girls," said Mercy basketball coach Mary Jo Huismann.   "Over the years he was one of the first reporters to do so. I remember him coming to Mercy to recognize the school with an award and he had a good commentary with the girls."

More than the awards, coaches say, Popovich is a journalist who easily relates to the high school coaches, administrators and student-athletes.

“He’s just a good human being,” former longtime Moeller varsity head baseball coach Mike Cameron said. “A guy you always enjoy talking with. It seemed more than a story when he called. It was a friend calling to talk.”

Lakota West Football Coach Larry Cox said the LaRosa's award is well-deserved.

"He's always been a big fan of high school football," Cox said. "I think he understands our communities with the high school aspect."

Popovich realized at a young age that his athletic talents were best served behind a microphone. He played basketball his freshman season of high school but enjoyed the media aspect of sports.

At 15, “Popo” joined WKTL, the first student-operated radio station in Ohio, where he read the news and “played polkas.”

He was the Struthers High School play-by-play announcer as a junior and senior and it eventually led him to Ohio University, where he earned a degree in telecommunications.

“Popo” has been the sports director at WCPO since 1981 and has been the primary sports’ anchor since 2013.

“It never seemed like an event if he wasn’t there covering it,” Cameron said.

Popovich, and his wife of 43 years, Kathie, live near Aurora, Indiana. Their son, Matthew, is a newspaper reporter in South Carolina. Popovich's four siblings were also in attendance for a family reunion of sorts Sunday afternoon.

The other 2016 LaRosa’s Sports Hall of Fame inductees included Angela Bizzarri (Pflugrath), Mason High School, Class of 2006; Irv Goode, Boone County High School, Class of 1958; Dominick Goodman, Colerain High School, Class of 2005; Robert Hite, Winton Woods High School, Class of 2002 and Donna Mechley, Mount Notre Dame (Coach).

Now in its 42nd year, Buddy LaRosa’s High School Sports Hall of Fame has honored 263 exceptional athletes, coaches and others who have supported high school sports since its founding in 1975. It is the oldest and one of the only halls of fame of its kind in the country.