This week the CFL club hired Dan Hawkins to replace Marc Trestman who was named the Chicago Bears head coach last month. Hawkins, 52, arrives in Montreal with no previous Canadian football coaching experience.
But back in 2008, Popp raised eyebrows when he hired Trestman, who came to the Alouettes with no previous CFL coaching experience as well as having never been a head coach. Over five seasons, Trestman compiled a 59-31-0 record, won two Grey Cups and was named the league's coach of the year in 2009.
"It just came together that Dan was the right guy as we went through the process,'' said Popp. "We got some very high-profile people call on his behalf and there were probably two or three candidates that never said anything negative about somebody and he was one of them.
"And you don't get those type of people calling for you unless you're the real deal and he's proven he has been the real deal. He's a quality, quality head-coaching prospect and we're going to give him that opportunity.''
Hawkins wasted no time trying to fit into his new surrounding, giving his opening remarks in tortured but earnest French. But there was no denying Hawkins' enthusiasm for his first pro head-coaching job.
"You look at when you were a kid out in the yard playing football and you started making up these other rules that made the game more fun and more exciting, you've got a lot of that in the CFL,'' he said. "I mean, everybody's in motion.
"In the States, you've got one guy in motion. You've got a wider field so you've got more space. They're talking about widening the NFL field right now to kind of eliminate some of the collisions. All that's exciting.''
Hawkins takes over a Montreal team that finished atop the East Division with an 11-7 record last year. But the Alouettes lost 27-20 to the eventual Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts in the conference final.
Hawkins spent the last two seasons as a college football analyst for ESPN but served as the head coach at Boise State and Colorado. Hawkins was just 19-39 at Colorado but an impressive 53-11 at Boise State and has an overall record of 112-61-1.
"I've always been sort of an out-of-the-box guy,'' said Hawkins. "You can just be as creative as you really want to be and that's fun from a coach's standpoint.''
Popp spoke to over 50 coaching candidates during his search and involved veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo in the process. Calvillo, who is entering his 20th CFL season and 16th with Montreal, spoke to all of the hopefuls.
"I had a great conversation with all of them and said, `There's not one that stands out over the other,' because this is not what I do,'' pro football's all-time passing leader said. "This is the first time I've been involved in terms of speaking to a potential head coach.
"All I did was just speak offensive philosophy and we left it at that."
Calvillo didn't know about Hawkins' hiring until receiving a phone call from owner Robert Wetenhall on Sunday.
"We now have to buy into the philosophy of Dan Hawkins and that's going to be something I'm going to do this off-season," Calvillo said. "I've trusted Mr. Wetenhall and Jim Popp every time they brought in a new head coach and now it's our turn as players to buy into what Dan is going to bring to the table and try not to compare too much of what your last coach did."
Mike Miller, who served last season as the Arizona Cardinals' offensive co-ordinator, joins Hawkins' staff as the assistant head coach, offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach.
"Our goal is to take it from Day 1 and go,'' said Miller, who interviewed for Montreal's head job. "I think you guys know in professional football there's really no grace period.
"We've already been working for a few days. We'll get some player input, obviously AC being one of them, and we're going to hit the ground running and we're looking forward to it.''
The remainder of Hawkins' staff will be Noel Thorpe (defensive co-ordinator), Ray Rychleski (special-teams co-ordinator), Doug Berry (senior advisor to head coach), Jean-Marc Edme (defensive assistant, football operations assistant), Frank Verducci (offensive line coach), Mark Speckman (running backs coach), Erik Campbell (receivers coach), Keith Willis (defensive line coach), Mark Nelson (linebackers coach) and Ryan Dinwiddie (offensive quality control coach).
Hawkins can't wait to get going.
"You're like a kid in a candy store,'' Hawkins said. "Now is there a lot to learn?
"Yeah, but that's where you've got Jim, you've got Doug, you've got Ryan, you've got Mark, you've got Noel, you have people that have boots on the ground and kind of get it."
Berry, who served as Winnipeg's head coach from 2006-'08, has 12 years of CFL coaching experience - including as an assistant with Montreal from 1999 to '05.
"That was a given because I know so much about how Jim Popp operates, how the organization works," Berry said. "That was a very comfortable shoe for me to put back on again."
Dinwiddie played six CFL seasons with Winnipeg (2006-'08) and Saskatchewan (2010-'11) but will be making his coaching debut with Montreal. Dinwiddie played for Hawkins at Boise State from 2001 to '03.
Dinwiddie was on Montreal's practice roster in '05 but didn't make his first CFL start until the '07 Grey Cup with Winnipeg, losing 23-19 to Saskatchewan at Rogers Centre. Dinwiddie also backed up Riders starter Darian Durant in the 2010 Grey Cup, which Montreal won.
"Obviously, we have big shoes to fill and we understand that but he (Hawkins) doesn't have to be Marc Trestman,'' Dinwiddie said. "He needs to be Dan Hawkins.
He hired Mike Miller to be Marc Trestman . . . Hawk will have his hands in on it but he's going to be the head coach. He'll make sure this thing's running right, make sure the coaches are doing the things they need to do handling and motivating the players. He's ready for it."
(© Canadian Press, photo courtesy Sun Media)