Former coach dies

Andrew Fergin, Editor-in-Chief

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Retired coach Elie Charles Popa, born Nov. 4 1930, died on Oct. 14 due to heart failure. Popa joined San Diego Mesa College in 1964, the year the school was founded, and worked there until his retirement in 1996. In his time at Mesa College Popa coached football and taught physical education courses.

Popa was a graduate from the University of Illinois. In 1952 he played as the university’s linebacker and defensive captain in the 1952 Rose Bowl game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Stanford Indians. The game was significant because it was the first televised college football game in history.

After his time playing for the University of Illinois Popa went on to play with the Chicago Cardinals before serving two years in the United States Air Force. During his service Popa gained the rank of First Lieutenant and served at the Strategic Air Command bomber base in Limestone, Maine.

As a football coach at Mesa College, Popa’s expertise made him popular with his players both as a coach and a person. Speaking on Popa’s relationship with his players, Assistant Athletic Director Dave Fager said, “They hovered around him like a bunch of little cubs with the mama bear.”

Passionate about the sport, Popa didn’t teach football as just a game. He focused “first and foremost on football as a way of life,” said close friend John Kovac.
Even after his retirement Popa continued to support Mesa College’s football team. “When his health was good he would come to all our home games,” said Dean of Physical Education Dave Evans.

As a person, Popa was an optimist. “I said, ‘how you doin pops?’ he said, ‘I’m doin just great.’ he was eternally positive and would never complain,” said Dave Fager, recounting a call with Popa while he was hospitalized.

Services for Popa’s death were held on Oct. 22 at El Camino Memorial Park. He is survived by his wife of 61 years (the former Marie Joan Stevens), daughter Cynthia June Popa, sister Helen Szabo, sister-in-law Barbara Popa, as well as nieces Diane Szabo and Elaine Rodman.