November 2, 2022
Bradley’s head coach Kate Popovec-Goss is meant for this
'When I sat in that chair, I felt like I was home'
When Kate Popovec-Goss got a call from Joe McKeown at 9 a.m. on the day Northwestern women’s basketball prepared to play Michigan State, she knew something wasn’t right.
McKeown, the Wildcats’ head coach, had the flu and didn’t think he was well enough to coach that night. This was Feb. 2020, before entertaining the idea of being around this many people while sick was as frowned upon as it is now.
“’You’re gonna step up and coach the game if you want to do that,’” Popovec-Goss, then Northwestern’s associate head coach, remembers McKeown telling her. “He was like, ‘You’re gonna do great,’ and that’s all he said to me.”
She was a nervous wreck. As the news trickled out, she started to receive calls and texts. Jim Phillips, then Northwestern’s athletic director, told her she was so ready for this; Armon Gates, a former Northwestern men’s basketball assistant coach, told her she’d earned this opportunity.
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The Wildcats were in the midst of a historic season, and their success continued with Popovec-Goss at the helm—they handily beat Michigan State, 85-55.
And for Popovec-Goss, who’d dreamt of being a head coach in some way since her own collegiate career ended, something just felt right.
“Once the ball went up in the air and I got through the first couple plays, I just felt like this is where I’m meant to be,” she says. “When I sat in that chair, I felt like I was home.”
McKeown was not surprised at all. He’d recruited her out of Youngstown, Ohio when she was in high school; he saw her high basketball IQ when she played for him after she transferred to Northwestern from the University of Pittsburgh; he saw the way she communicated with their players as his assistant coach. Basketball coaching was in her blood.
“You could just see the preparation. She was ready,” McKeown says of his former assistant’s performance filling in for him. “She’s undefeated in the Big Ten.”
McKeown subsequently returned to his post three days later, but Popovec-Goss had gotten a taste of what that next step would be in her career.
In the meantime, she was the defensive coordinator for a Big Ten championship team that finished the pandemic-shortened season 26-4 (16-2 Big Ten), spearheaded by a stifling defense that allowed just 57.1 points per game and forced over 10 turnovers per game in conference play. It was the Wildcats first Big Ten title in 30 years.
Now two and a half years later, Popovec-Goss has officially moved over one chair as the new head coach for Bradley University, 180 miles southwest of Northwestern in Peoria, Ill.
The Braves are coming off a 4-24 season where they went 1-17 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Popovec-Goss will be the first to admit her first season—and likely her first few seasons—will be rebuilding years. But if there’s anyone cut out to rebuild a program in a way that embodies her own personality, it’s Popovec-Goss.
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“I love basketball, obviously, but I love people,” she says of why she’s ready for this opportunity. “To be able to combine those things for four years and be a part of young women’s lives in some of their most formative times was really compelling to me. There’s so much that sports teach young people, and it really provides a lot of opportunities, specifically for women in their employment and their career choices. That was what really motivated me.”
Your Purpose Is Your Purpose
Celia Satter remembers watching Popovec-Goss play for Northwestern at the old Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“I was young, but she was just a beast on the court,” she recalls.
A family friend of the McKeowns, Satter often found herself watching Northwestern women’s basketball. Now, after spending three years playing college basketball at the University of Richmond, she’s embarking on the next chapter of her basketball career playing at Bradley.
McKeown still wishes Satter and other Northwestern women’s basketball fans could’ve seen more of Popovec-Goss on the court.
“She was a big, strong, physical post player,” McKeown remembers. “Played on a really good team at Pitt and was an outstanding student and just brought a lot of energy to the program. We were happy to get her.”
Because of the NCAA transfer rules, she had to sit out her first year in Evanston. She found herself on the scout team, and for McKeown, that was his first indicator that coaching was in her future.
“You just saw her analytical approach to basketball,” he says. “She was very organized, very disciplined and took scouting reports to another level. You’re like, ‘You know, she understands that we’re trying to do down here.’ It kinda gave me a hint that she could be really good at this.”
That redshirt year was key for Popovec-Goss. She worked every day in practice against Amy Jaeschke, who still sits at or near the top of several Northwestern women’s basketball leaderboards. She could feel that she was getting better, and she knew McKeown had ambitious goals for her.
Then, it all radically changed.
About a week before what was supposed to begin her first season playing for Northwestern, she had to have a pacemaker implanted. She’d been having tachycardic episodes in her heart that almost killed her. Her career as a prolific, go-to post player was not going to materialize.
She was able to work her way back to be medically cleared to play for her senior year in 2012-13, but she only played about seven minutes per game. It just wasn’t the same.
After graduating from Northwestern in 2013, she joined one of her former Pitt coaches, Jeff Williams, as the director of basketball operations at La Salle University for the 2013-14 season. McKeown subsequently hired her to come back to Evanston where she worked in player development for two seasons, before taking her first assistant coaching job at Colgate.
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She’d inched a bit closer to what she thought she aspired to do. And then, she thought about giving it up entirely.
On Jan. 9, 2017, she got a call that Jordan Hankins, then a sophomore on Northwestern’s women’s basketball team, had died. She took her own life.
Popovec-Goss had worked closely with Hankins the previous year while she was still at Northwestern. But now at Colgate in Hamilton, NY, far from her family and from what was familiar, she tried to process this unthinkable tragedy.
“The potential to be phenomenal basketball players, but more importantly, profound and dynamic people is something that each of them possesses, and it is our job to help them develop into the young women that they aspire to be. And that’s why it hurts so much to lose one that had so much life to live,” Popovec-Goss wrote on her blog less than a day later.
She continued: “As coaches, we carry each player in a little space in our hearts. And the spot where I carry you will forever be broken. But I’m blessed to have known you, to have loved you, and most importantly, be loved by you.”
Less than a month later, Popovec-Goss’ grandfather passed away at the age of 84.
“That really affected me in a lot of ways,” she recalls. “I didn’t have that jolt in me.”
She called McKeown and told him she didn’t think she wanted to coach anymore.
“’No Pop, you do. You’re built for this, you’re made for this,’” she remembers him telling her. “’This is your purpose. Impacting these young girls is your purpose. You’re meant to be on the court. You’ve just had a year where life makes you question things sometimes.’”
He invited her back to Northwestern. He wanted her to give coaching one more shot.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you’re back at a place where you’re really comfortable, so let’s give this some time, see if it’ll happen,’” McKeown says.
He’d hired her to work in player development again, hoping to give her an opportunity to step back from the rigors of being an assistant coach. But right before the start of the 2017-18 season, assistant coach Christie Sides left the program to join the Indiana Fever coaching staff. McKeown asked Popovec-Goss if she’d fill the unexpected vacancy. It didn’t have to be permanent, he told her. But it was too close to the season to hire somebody from outside the staff, so he wanted to give her the chance.
“I think in his heart of hearts, he knew that once I was able to separate from the tragedy that had surrounded me, that I would want to be on the sidelines,” she says. “And that was it. Never once again have I looked back. Those personal tragedies can really make you question a lot of things, but ultimately, your purpose is your purpose, and you can’t be pulled away from it.”
‘I’ve Never Had a Coach Like That’
Bradley announced Popovec-Goss as its next head coach on April 6, 2022. The opportunity she’d worked toward, then contemplated stepping away from, before realizing it was what she was meant to do, was here. Finally.
She’s as well-prepared as she could possibly be. In addition to her work in player development and as the defensive coordinator, she also worked as the recruiting coordinator under McKeown. So, she’s familiarized herself with many of the different components that go into running a college basketball program.
“One thing that I think is really important: She’s herself. She doesn’t try to be anybody else,” McKeown says. “And that’s really important because your first head coaching job, people are coming at you with 100 different things that have nothing to do with basketball.”
That includes working with the Bradley administration, getting to know boosters and developing connections with fans in addition to recruiting, player management and working with her staff.
For Abi Scheid, who played at Northwestern from 2016 through 2020, developing those relationships is where Popovec-Goss excels.
“She 100 percent cares about you as a person before a player, and I know a lot of people say that, but she lives it every day by everything she does,” Scheid says. “She would check in with us before practice, she would ask me how my family’s doing, just was curious about me outside of basketball and outside of me as an athlete.”
So far, the early returns at Bradley have confirmed this.
“The one thing that sticks out to me is how positive and inspiring she is,” Veronika Roberts, the only senior on this year’s roster, says about her new head coach. “The way she talks about our team and her belief in us, I’ve never had a coach like that.”
It Was Just a Hot Mess
In case being a first-time head coach isn’t challenging enough, Popovec-Goss is adding another hurdle: implementing the “Blizzard” defense.
Back when McKeown coached at New Mexico State in the late 1980s, his teams started playing this defense, named after the Dairy Queen dessert. It’s commonly mistaken for a 2-3 zone, but it’s not a zone, as McKeown will emphatically tell you.
In its simplest terms, as Popovec-Goss describes it, if you’re playing close to the basketball it looks like man-to-man, if you’re playing far away from the basketball it looks like a zone.
“The overall goals of it are to disrupt the offensive patterns, to be able to cater the defense to different styles of play,” she says. “Hopefully what you do is because it’s disruptive, it forces turnovers, it forces bad shots, it allows you to get out and run and play fast.”
Over his coaching career that’s spanned four decades, McKeown’s had many assistants become head coaches, but no one has successfully implemented the Blizzard defense.
That hasn’t deterred Popovec-Goss, though. She knows it will take time, possibly a couple of years, but she’s committed to bringing the Blizzard down to Peoria.
“It’s been a lot of fun to implement,” she says. “I always tell [the players], ‘Hey, half the time you’re not gonna know what’s going on. That’s OK. Hopefully the other team doesn’t know either.’”
Popovec-Goss explains that the hardest part about teaching the defense is that players so often mistake it for a 2-3 zone.
“Once you understand the why’s behind all of it, you’re like, ‘Oh that makes so much sense,’ and you’re able to do it,” Satter, the grad transfer, says. “But at first, it was just a hot mess.”
Adds junior forward Isis Fitch: “If you don’t communicate, you’re gonna get burned, and that’s just what we have to learn as a team.”
Even amid the anticipated growing pains, the Blizzard defense seems like the right fit for this team. Popovec-Goss says the defense caters to players with high basketball IQ more so than players with pure athleticism, and that’s precisely what she thinks she has.
There’s still a long way to go, but everyone is seeing the progress.
“Once we finally started drilling it and putting it in, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is actually a really great defense,’” Roberts says. “Especially with the people we have on our team this year, I think it will be a very good threat.”
The Blizzard experiment also might have a better chance of succeeding with Popovec-Goss than it has with other former McKeown assistants because she has someone else on staff familiar with the defense: her assistant coach and husband, Ollie Goss.
Goss was most recently the director of operations for Northwestern women’s basketball, so he’s still getting adjusted to his new role as an assistant coach, but he knows the Blizzard defense well.
“The biggest challenge is just the patience you have to have in teaching it,” he says. “You have to just go one step at a time, and at times it can feel like the drills are monotonous because we’ve done them so much, but it’s just a defense that you don’t typically play in man-to-man principles. The rotations are different, the angles when you’re guarding the ball are different. The mentality behind it is a little bit different from what you’re used to.”
The Braves and their Blizzard defense will be put to the test right away. They open the season against a Missouri team that finished 18-13 last season and played in the WNIT, a South Dakota team that reached the Sweet 16 last season and a Wisconsin team in the middle of a rebuild but in its second year under the leadership of Marisa Moseley, a Geno Auriemma disciple.
Seeing Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin in a row on a schedule might not jump off the page for some programs. But for a team with a first-time head coach, a brand-new staff and a group of players that don’t have much experience playing together, Popovec-Goss is realistic with her team about their prospects for her first year.
“We’re probably not gonna win 25 games this year or 20 games,” she says. “That’s OK. It’s about the process of getting there and getting them to buy into the process so that we’re not just looking at results. Even if they had won 25 games last year, that would still be my goal because if you do things the right way, the results are secondary. They just happen.”
It’s Like One Big Family
Popovec-Goss and Goss first met back in 2015. She was working in player development for McKeown, while he was just starting as a graduate assistant for Chris Collins and the Northwestern men’s basketball team.
Fast forward seven years later, they’ve been married since August and are now embarking on a new dimension to their professional relationship as well.
Although they technically worked on the same staff at Northwestern, they occupied their own spheres, with Goss focusing on the operational side while Popovec-Goss was coaching. Now, there’s way more collaboration between them.
“It requires patience from both of us,” Goss says. “But it’s been fun. It’s cool because I think we complement each other pretty well. She’s always the star of the show, a bigtime personality and always the rockstar. I always tell everybody she’s the rockstar, and I’m the groupie because I’m such a fan of her work.”
The daily grinds of coaching make it anything but your typical 9-to-5 job: constant travel for recruiting events, late nights preparing for games, among other responsibilities.
“It’s all Ollie and I really know to be honest with you,” Popovec-Goss says. “We were friends for so long, and we really became friends working together. … I think the hardest thing is finding a way to shut it down when we’re not there, coming home and not talking about recruiting at 10 p.m. or drawing up plays at the kitchen table.”
“It’s usually me who brings up, ‘This was a great conversation with a recruit,’” Goss admits. “We have to put in some rules at night where we don’t talk about work after 9. I’m just so new to recruiting that I always like to talk to her about good conversations I have, and bad ones even. But sometimes, I gotta probably cool it down a bit more.”
For the rest of the team, the familial nature of Popovec-Goss and Goss indirectly reflects the program the coaches and players want to build.
“Just knowing the amount of love that is shared within the staff, not only between the two married ones, it’s really cool to see how important family is to everybody,” Satter says. ”As a team, we all want to have love for each other too. It’s like one big family that we’re all in.”
Every basketball coach talks about culture, from a high school gymnasium to an NBA arena. But for Popovec-Goss, culture is so important because in some sense, the culture she wants to build is an extension of who she is: positive, hardworking, high-energy, compassionate, thoughtful.
Some of that energy was on display in a video Bradley women’s basketball posted to its social media accounts of Popovec-Goss mic’d up for a late-September practice.
“I put it on my story, and people kept swiping up like, ‘Oh my God! She seems so fun!’ ‘That seems like such a fun time in practice. You guys must love it,’” Satter says. “Like yeah, we all love it.”
Especially for the returning players who endured a long, arduous 2021-22 season, the lively practices are invigorating.
“It helps when your coach has energy,” Fitch says. “It radiates throughout the gym. It’s just a place you want to be.”
In the gym, with a whistle around her neck, as a college basketball head coach is right where Popovec-Goss wants to be, too. And as she works to establish herself in her new role, at a new institution, in a new city, she has everyone in her own basketball family rooting for her.
“We’re really proud of her,” McKeown says. “She’s got a chance to be really, really successful in this business. She’s part of our family. We’re Bradley fans now, too.”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.