Wouldn't it be nice if Jerry Savage concluded his coaching career in front of an appreciative audience at a gleaming field house, in the showcase basketball event that he helped nurture?
His 608th victory would advance Loyola High to the quarterfinals of the combined Baltimore Catholic League/Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference tournament this weekend at Goucher College.
That would mean more public kudos and squirming for Savage, however, so it might be more appropriate if his 40th and final season as a high school fixture were to conclude in tonight's play-in game at Towson Catholic. The Owls have a tiny gym, with seating for dozens, not thousands. It's a humble setting, and Savage is a most unassuming man.
"He has no ego," said Dan Popera, a pupil on Savage's first team, the 1961-62 Mount St. Joseph JV. "I have never seen him act to promote himself."
Savage, 64, informed the Loyola administration last spring that this season would be his last. He released the news in November. Humility comes easy when the past six seasons have been a series of defeats, but Savage was the same grounded guy a generation ago, when he sent Pete Budko to North Carolina, Tony Guy to Kansas and dynamic teams onto the floor.
His players may be more interested in lacrosse now, but the life lessons haven't changed.
"I've learned patience," said senior Essien Ford, Loyola's top player. "Humility is another thing. He talks about that a little, but mostly it's by example. My last day here, he'll be giving the same advice I heard for four years."
Rooted in tradition
A creature of habit, Savage would still be rooting for baseball's Giants if they hadn't fled New York's Polo Grounds for San Francisco in 1958. He grew up in northern New Jersey, his love of basketball linked to Philadelphia's affinity for the game. Ed Lyons, his high school coach, was a Temple man. Jim Phelan, who recruited him to Mount St. Mary's, played for La Salle.
Savage preaches what he practiced - repetition. He owned the highest career free-throw percentage at the Mount for a couple of decades (81 percent), and he can still stroke it. Note the dwindling entrants in the Maryland Senior Olympics since he began to team with Bob Ferry, once a Baltimore Bullet in the NBA.
Savage simply loves basketball. If he isn't coaching or playing, chances are he is watching. Opening night at the state championships became part of his routine when they began to include another of his former Mount St. Joe players, John Brady, running Annapolis.
"Jerry taught us how to move without the ball and defend when it was on the other side of the floor," said Popera, Archbishop Curley's coach from 1974 to 1999. "He's the same type of personality now that he was in 1961. The following year, we moved up to the varsity and played for Gene Nieberlein, and that was a 180. Both are competitive, but Jerry was much more easygoing."
Savage and his wife, Pat, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in June. She taught math at Mount St. Joe for 23 years, and Savage might have stayed there except that he wanted a varsity job and Nieberlein wasn't going anywhere. Ed Hargaden coached Loyola from 1942 to 1968, when the Dons replaced an institution with one in the making.
"Men For Others" has been a motto at some Jesuit schools since the 1980s. Savage lives it.
Besides coaching basketball, he took over as interim athletic director in 1973 and held the job until 2000. Before schools hired trainers, he taped ankles. Before they hired groundskeepers, he mowed grass and lined fields. He used to drive the Loyola bus. Michael Iampieri, an art teacher, and John Stewart are the only men who have worked at Blakefield longer.
"Jerry is a very methodical man," said Stewart, the dean of students. "He has the same thing for lunch every day: one sandwich, a pack of Tastykakes and a drink.
"I learned passion and commitment from Joe Brune [who coached Loyola football for 38 seasons]. From Jerry Savage, I learned patience and more patience. I've seen his temper come out, but I never heard him lose it at practice or with one of his kids. If you talked to Jerry in 1977 or today, you have no idea how his team is doing, but I know that the fire in his belly, to win, has to be eating at him."
Savage's all-time regular-season mark in the Catholic League closed at 190-190, and in his past five seasons, Loyola went 7-63 in the league he helped form (in 1971). This season's Dons went 1-13, 10-21 overall, leaving his career record at 607-456.
Savage's last title came in 1997. Mark Karcher and St. Frances loomed over the Catholic League, but Loyola earned the A Conference crown when a Ryan Heacock shot beat Calvert Hall and Juan Dixon. Heacock played lacrosse for St. Mary's and went into banking. His teammates included Brian Cosgrove, who's trying to get into law school, and Carlos Somarriba, who's already there. Another teammate, Chris Malone, played lacrosse for Maryland and is an assistant at Penn.
Loyola last produced a Division I scholarship basketball player in the 1980s. Savage's successor will be Steve Baker, who assisted on five NCAA tournament teams and has deciphered the Princeton offense. That knowledge will be valuable, because these Dons have no low-post threats.
Other coaches have been more zealous, whether it's recruiting the middle schools or raiding other varsities. Loyola tuition will approach $11,000 next year, most expensive in the Catholic League, and its administration ponders philosophical issues.
"I have never heard a negative word from Jerry. He's an unbelievably upbeat guy," said John Tucker, Loyola's athletic director and lacrosse coach. "Throughout the 1990s, [other] schools were very aggressive in recruiting kids across the board, not just in basketball. Loyola was never at the forefront of that movement. We need to be more aggressive in exposing our programs."
Savage, who lives in Catonsville, helped shuttle Guy from his home in West Baltimore to Loyola in 1976. What does Savage think of the issue?
"What did Al McGuire say?" he said. " 'You coach, I'll recruit and we'll see who wins.' "
McGuire rode a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket. Savage has gone through a lot of khakis and dark blazers. Cardinal Gibbons honored Savage with a red towel, in memory of the late Crusaders boss, Ray Mullis. The Catholic League's Coach of the Year Award is preceded by Mullis' name. Now Savage's will be attached to the Player of the Year trophy.
Pat Maggio was an All-Metro guard for Mullis in 1968-69, the first of Savage's 35 seasons at Loyola. This is his ninth year as an assistant to Savage, whom Maggio said is embarrassed at the cost of the April 5 bull roast that Loyola will hold in his honor. It conflicts with the NCAA semifinals in New Orleans and the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention, but some NABC members made sure to catch Savage's last game at Blakefield.
All three of his sons played for Savage, and Michael is still one of his assistants. Even with them, there appeared to be more coaches than former players in the stands Feb. 14, when his final home game was a drubbing administered by McDonogh. Popera and Brune were there. So were Bill Nelson of Johns Hopkins and Nap Doherty, who led Loyola College when Savage guided the Greyhounds' freshmen in 1967-68.
It was Senior Night. Ford and two other members of the Class of 2003 were each feted longer than Savage. His wife, Pat, was given a dozen roses. He was handed a gift box.
"Thank you very much," Savage said. "Thank you."
He didn't damage the blue wrapping paper, and gave the box to Pat. There was still a game to coach, and teach.
At least five area coaches have served the same high school in the same sport for 30 years, without interruption (BB-basketball; FH-field hockey; TF-track and field):
Coach, School Sport Yrs
Tom Albright, So.-AA BB 38
Lin James, N. Harford BB 36
Jerry Savage, Loyola BB 35
Phyllis Hemmes, B. Air FH 31
Bev Simpson, Towson BB 30
Fred Hendricks, Mervo TF 30