John Savage has always been his own man. His decisions. His own path. His timetable. His goals.
As a senior in high school he turned down an offer from George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. He then bypassed larger schools to pitch at tiny Santa Clara University.
When his baseball career ended he did not join his father and two brothers in the family’s successful plumbing and heating business and instead became a high school baseball assistant coach.
Rather than wait patiently for a chance to become the head baseball coach at the University of Nevada (his father-in-law was the athletic director) he uprooted his young family to become USC’s pitching coach.
His first college head coaching job was at a school that didn’t have players, uniforms or a field at the time and wouldn’t even play a game for more than another year.
He has remained 16 seasons as UCLA’s head coach, turning down offers to become one of the highest paid head coaches in the nation at college baseball factories such as USC and Texas.
His path. His timetable. His decision. His goal. And it all led to John Savage becoming one of the best head coaches in college baseball.
Determined. Diligent. Daring. Detailed. Devoted. Decisive. Dominating.
“I love touching the lives of people,” Savage said earlier this year on a podcast titled “Dugout Chatter.”
Family will always be No. 1 in Savage’s life. Father L.J., mother Eileen and brothers Len and Pete taught him that at the same time they taught him how to hit, catch and pitch a baseball and shoot jumpers. But baseball is a very close No. 2. And, at times, they have been one and the same thing.
“The game of baseball has always been a solidifying factor in our family,” Pete Savage said in 2010 after his father passed away.
Baseball is family for the Savage family.
“You have to believe in each other,” John Savage said after his UCLA Bruins won the College World Series in 2013. “That’s what this team (the Bruins) did. They believed in each other. That’s what great teams do.”
Just like great families.
It all started with Leonard Joseph Savage, the father of Len, Pete and John.
“He taught us how to love the game the right way,” Pete told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2017, “and how baseball can teach you life lessons.”
L.J., a Reno High and University of Nevada graduate and Korean War veteran, ran the family plumbing and heating business, Savage and Son, until his death in 2010. His sons, though, were always his priority.
“We had a basketball court in the front of our house and a baseball field in the back of our house,” Pete said on the Dugout Chatter podcast. “We played sports everyday until sundown without a care in the world with all the kids in the neighborhood. It was truly a great American neighborhood.”
Sports, friends and family. L.J. was one of the greatest youth sports supporters in Northern Nevada.
“All I did was sports,” said John, the youngest of the three Savage boys. “My brothers brought me up. It helped me a great deal. There’s nothing better than playing up.”
That philosophy of playing up, of always testing yourself against the best competition, has had a consistent, driving influence on many of the decisions John Savage has made in his life.
As an athlete John Savage went from the youngest kid in the backyard playing against the big kids to becoming one of the best high school pitchers the state of Nevada has ever produced.
Savage, playing for Reno High like his father and two brothers before him, was the Most Valuable Player in the Northern AAA in both 1982 and 1983. He shared the award with Carson High’s Matt Williams in 1982 and won the Most Valuable Pitcher award in 1983 while Williams won the Most Valuable Position Player.
He was 11-1 with a 1.30 earned run average with 90 strikeouts in 70 innings during his junior year in 1982. During one stretch in his senior year in 1983 Savage pitched 24 consecutive no-hit innings, an unbelievable run that included two seven-inning complete-game no-hitters against Fallon and Wooster.
“That’s the kind of stuff you read about when (former Negro League great) Satchel Paige was pitching,” Reno High coach Bill Penaluna said in 1983.
Savage was 8-1 his senior year with a 1.16 ERA and finished a remarkable 27-5 in his Reno High pitching career. His 27 victories are the fourth most in Nevada high school history and his 242 strikeouts are in the Top 20.
The Wolf Pack, of course, wanted him. So did UNLV. Oklahoma State and Nebraska invited him to their campus. Fresno State wanted him to be a Bulldog. There wasn’t a college program, or a professional organization, that wasn’t aware of what John Savage was doing in Northern Nevada in the early 1980s.
“Those were the great days,” said Savage in 1986. “They always stick with me.”
Savage, though, handled his high school days with as much calm, maturity and attention to detail as he would three decades later trying to win a College World Series.
“He’s very mature for his age,” Penaluna said in 1983. “He’s handled it better than most kids would have handled it. I’m getting calls (from pro scouts and college recruiters) from 6:30 in the morning to 12 at night. I get called out of class to answer calls. It drives me crazy.”
Savage was also a standout high school basketball player. He was the Northern AAA Zone tournament Most Valuable Player in 1982, scoring 22 points against Reed in the title game and 17 against Douglas in the semifinals.
But it was baseball that always owned his heart.
“I’ve never coached a smarter ballplayer,” Penaluna said in 1982, during Savage’s junior year. “He doesn’t have the greatest fastball (clocked in high 80s in high school) but he knows how to pitch. He’s the kind of guy who helps the whole staff.”
The New York Yankees drafted Savage in the sixth round (he was the Yankees’ third pick) of the 1983 June draft.
“I’ll never forget the night they called,” said Pete in 1996. “We were all eating dinner and it was John’s graduation night at Reno High. The phone rings and it’s the New York Yankees. It was incredible. We were all so excited.”
Savage never did sign with the Yankees and instead decided to follow the path of big brothers Len (Class of 1982 and a former Broncos shortstop) and Pete (Class of 1983) by enrolling at Santa Clara.
“Our parents taught us to value education,” Pete said in 1996.
John Savage was 7-4 with a 3.63 ERA his freshman year at Santa Clara over 99 innings and was named the team’s Most Valuable Pitcher. He then went to the Alaska Summer League and pitched another 65 innings.
“I was winning a bunch of games and I was rolling along,” John said in 1988.
It was in Alaska where John’s pitching career took a new path. His talented right arm began to experience pain.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t even pick up a ball between starts,” he said.
Savage struggled in three outings against the Wolf Pack in his career, all at Moana Stadium. His most difficult performance against the Pack was March 22, 1985, when he gave up eight runs and eight hits in 2.2 innings in a 22-10 loss.
“Personally, I don’t think he likes to pitch in Reno,” Pack coach Gary Powers said after the 1985 game.
Savage was a solid 16-15 in his Santa Clara career with a 5.04 ERA over a grueling 275 innings. He was 4-7 as a junior with a 5.92 ERA but the Cincinnati Reds picked him in the 16th round of the June 1986 draft. The San Francisco Giants, the team L.J. Savage used to take his three young sons to watch play at Candlestick Park in the 1960s and 1970s, picked UNLV’s Matt Williams with the No. 3 overall pick in the same draft.
Savage signed with the Reds for $12,500 (according to media reports), or about seven or eight times less than what he would have signed for with the Yankees three years earlier.
“They signed me more on what I had done in the past,” Savage said in 1986.
Savage then went to Billings, Mont., in the Pioneer League to start his professional career. He allowed seven runs on five hits and three walks in one inning in his first appearance. After that he settled down and had a stretch where he allowed just one run over 17 innings. But the fastball never came back and his control disappeared.
His final statistics his first pro season were a 2-3 record, 7.98 ERA over 19 games (three starts) and two saves with 33 walks and 24 strikeouts over 44 innings. In one of his saves, though, he entered the game with an 8-7 lead and the bases loaded with no outs and struck out two and got a ground out to retire the side.
The 1986 season in Billings would be Savage’s only year with the Reds‘ organization. He spent the next two years (1987 and 1988) in independent baseball with Boise in the Northwest League and the Reno Silver Sox in the California League.
Savage was 2-14 with the Silver Sox with an 8.21 ERA over 118.1 innings. He struck out 59 and walked 74. His final stats in pro ball were a 7-21 record and a 7.52 ERA in 61 games with 128 walks and 110 strikeouts.
It was time for a new career.
Savage then spent the 1989 and 1990 seasons as Reno High’s pitching coach (Pete was also on the staff) and also coached the pitchers on the Reno Knights’ American Legion team.
The days of scouts pointing radar guns at his right arm were long gone.
Savage then became one of Gary Powers’ assistants with the Wolf Pack in 1991 and enrolled in classes at Nevada to finish up his bachelor’s degree. Powers then made Savage his full-time pitching coach and lead recruiter in 1992.
It was a move that changed Savage’s life as well as the direction of the Wolf Pack baseball program.
The Wolf Pack went 43-11 and won all 27 of their home games in 1992 as an independent. They shocked the entire west coast by winning the ultra competitive Big West Conference in 1994 and went to their first Division I regional. The Pack went 35-18 in 1995 and 30-19 in 1996.
Savage literally transformed the Pack with his ability to recruit, especially in Southern California. When Savage was in charge of Wolf Pack recruiting players
such as Lyle Overbay, Andy Dominique, Glenn Carson, Wade Jackson, Justin Martin, Shane Slayton, Matt Wells, Chris Garza, Chris Briones, Justin Drizos, Jay Uhlman, Rick Lagattuta, Bobby Post, Josh Bendik, John Patton, Mark Lewis, Neil Garcia, Chris Prieto, Geoff Grenert and Cody Kosman joined the program. Savage’s last recruiting class for the Pack in the fall of 1995 and spring of 1996 included Joe Inglett, Corky Miller, Jim Brink and Gary Johnson, a group that helped lead the Pack to NCAA Regionals in 1997, 1999 and 2000 after Savage left.
“It comes pretty natural for me,” said Savage in 1996 of his recruiting ability. “I just feel I have seen enough baseball where I definitely know a player when I see one.”
Savage’s best Pack recruiting class might have been the one he announced in June 1993 that included Post, Wells, Garza, Dominique, Garcia, Anthony Basoco, Jay Johnson, Kyle Kory and David Brown that were all pivotal to the landmark 1994 Big West title and first Division I regional.
Dominique, an elite power hitter who would eventually play in the major leagues, was highly recruited in Southern California and started Savage’s pipeline of talent that migrated from the Los Angeles area to Reno.
The Pack went 177-82 from 1992-96 with Savage in charge of recruiting and the pitching.
Wolf Pack athletic director Chris Ault, the father of Savage’s wife Lisa (they were married in 1992) said on a northern Nevada radio show in 1996 that Savage was “the stability of the baseball program. He’s one of the best coaches in the country.”
Being married to the athletic director’s daughter put extra pressure on Savage as an assistant coach on Powers’ staff.
“I have to deal with people’s perceptions,” he said in 1996. “Before I married Lisa I wasn’t the top assistant. But when we got engaged, now I’m the top assistant. I think some people wondered if that (his marriage) was the only reason I was connected to the university.”
The only wondering going on in the community was when Savage would take over the program. That, too, made Savage uncomfortable because Powers was his friend. Powers, after all, gave him his first college coaching job. Powers recruited Savage as a player back in 1983. The two coaches have a friendship that lasts to this day.
“I’m just fitting in,” said Savage in 1992, when the Pack first started to win big. “But we do work well together. He (Powers) gives me a lot of freedom.”
Powers always saw the value that Savage brought to his program.
“When it comes time for me to move on and they need to replace me then I’d like nothing more than for John Savage to be that guy,” Powers said in 1996. “We recruited him out of high school (in 1983). He’s just the type of person we’ve always wanted in our program. He’s a quality guy, a humble guy and a hard worker.”
It was becoming obvious, though, that Savage had higher career aspirations than being a Wolf Pack assistant coach. While at Nevada he looked into openings at Arizona State and St. Mary’s among others.
“Down the road I do want to run a program,” he said.
“He deserves to be a head coach,” said Powers, who would remain as Pack head coach through 2013.
Savage, still just 31 years old, left the Wolf Pack in July 1996 to become the pitching coach and lead recruiter for the USC Trojans.
“I love it here,” said Savage of Reno, the day he announced he was going to USC. “All my roots are here. But this (USC) is an amazing opportunity.”
USC head coach Mike Gillespie, one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history, was the one who brought Savage to Southern California.
“You couldn’t help but notice they (Nevada) were winning with some Southern California players and he (Savage) was the guy winning and getting those Southern California players,” Gillespie said.
USC won the College World Series in Savage’s second year at the school in 1998. The Trojans went to the College World Series three times and the NCAA Regionals three other times in Savage’s eight years (1997-04) at the school. Savage was named the National Assistant Coach of the Year in 1998 by Collegiate Baseball magazine. While at USC Savage recruited future major league pitchers Mark Prior, Seth Etherton and Barry Zito.
Savage and USC came to Peccole Park on a chilly afternoon in early March 1997. The game was tied 4-4 in the bottom of the third inning when a blizzard hit Peccole and the game was quickly called off.
“Today was the first day all year I had to put on my long johns,” Savage said that day. “So I knew I was home.”
Savage briefly reflected that day on his six seasons with the Pack. “Those were fun years,” Savage said. “We were chasing people and it was awesome. Now (at USC) I’m kind of on the other side of that now.”
The move to USC worked to perfection.
“It changed my entire life and my family’s life,” Savage said in 2013.
By 2000, though, Savage had outgrown the USC pitching coach/lead recruiter position. It was now time for him to run his own program.
In July 2000 he was named the head coach of the UC Irvine Anteaters. It was a bold and daring move by Savage, leaving the prestige and safety of the USC Trojans. Irvine had not played a baseball season since 1992, after all, and would not play its first game under Savage until 2002.
Savage, though, treated it as the challenge of a lifetime, as if he was that wide-eyed passionate young boy in his backyard when the Savage brothers would put teams of neighborhood boys together and compete from sun-up to sundown.
“I have a whole year to recruit, design the uniforms, everything,” Savage said when getting the job in 2000. “It’s exciting.”
Savage and the Anteaters lost their first three games in 2002 but their first victory was 6-4 over UCLA in Game No. 4.
Irvine, playing in the rugged Big West, was a stunning 33-26 its first year, beating UCLA twice, Long Beach State three times and California twice. The Anteaters had five freshman All Americans in 2002.
Irvine went just 21-35 in Savage’s second year but Year Three saw the Anteaters finish 34-23-1 and go to the NCAA Regionals in 2004.
Dan Guerrero, who hired Savage at Irvine in 2000, was now in his second year as UCLA’s athletic director when the 2004 season came to a close.
Gary Adams, the first coach in UC Irvine’s baseball history (1970-74), had just retired after coaching UCLA to 984 victories since 1975. Guerrero’s Bruins needed a head coach. Savage had just taken a three-year-old program to the NCAA Regionals.
Guerrero quickly hired Savage for the second time, filling the role of Savage guardian angel that Ault never got a chance to fill at Nevada.
Gillespie, who would become Irvine’s head coach in 2007, gave his blessing to UCLA’s hiring of Savage in 2004.
“I’m a giant fan of John’s,” said Gillespie, who passed away this summer at the age of 80. “To do as much as they’ve (Irvine) done as fast as they’ve done it is significant. I realize there are a lot of players in Southern California but finding those players and developing them this fast is not something just anyone can do.”
Talk about playing up. Savage was now the head coach at one of the most significant universities in the nation in athletics.
But the Bruins, who played in Jackie Robinson Stadium, had been to just one College World Series (1997) in the previous 34 seasons (1970-2004) when Savage arrived. Adams led them to just 11 Regionals in 30 years.
“Everyday we go into the Hall of Fame room and see all the national championships and baseball doesn’t have anything,” Savage said a few years into his UCLA career.
Savage’s first UCLA team went 15-41 in 2005. That same year he had to go to the hospital to check out why he was experiencing a shortness of breath and a painful pounding in his chest. Yes, sometimes playing up can cause a little stress.
By 2010, though, the Bruins were in the College World Series and finishing second. They returned to Omaha in 2012 and in 2013 they won UCLA’s first baseball national championship. In just nine seasons (2005-13) Savage brought the Bruins to more College World Series appearances (three) than the program had (two) before he got there.
Savage’s Bruins won 51 games in 2010, 48 in 2012, 49 in 2013, 45 in 2015 and 52 in 2019. Last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season, the Bruins were 13-2. Savage now has a record of 552-362-1 at UCLA and is 640-446-2 overall as a head coach.
In 2011, two of his UCLA pitchers were drafted No. 1 (Gerrit Cole) and No. 3 overall (Trevor Bauer). Cole, by the way, also turned down the Yankees in high school three years before in 2008, much the same way a studious righthander from Reno High did in 1983.
Savage has been the Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2015 and 2019 and probably should have won it three more times. Seven of his Bruins have been drafted in the first round and nearly two dozen of them have already played in the major league. In 2019 there were 13 of Savage’s Bruins drafted.
Another Savage recruit, of sorts, is current Wolf Pack head coach T.J. Bruce, a Savage assistant at UCLA for five years. Bruce, the Pack coach since 2016, was the fifth Savage UCLA assistant who became a head coach.
“It was a special time at UCLA with Coach Savage,” said Bruce when he was named the Pack coach. “He has meant a great deal to me.”
Savage has excelled at UCLA doing all of the same things he did at Reno High and Nevada. Pete, one of the best coaches in Nevada high school history, does the same thing at Reno High. Len and Pete do the same things to help keep Savage and Son thriving, now well into its second century.
Whether it’s at UCLA, Reno High or Savage and Son, the Savages do the same thing. They combine a phenomenal attention to detail with an unwavering work ethic and a family atmosphere where everyone is treated equally.
“You control your approach, your preparation and your mindset,” John told the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. “You control the controllables.”
Savage was studying baseball analytics long before anyone had ever heard of the phrase or had a personal computer to store all of the information.
“You have to have a system,” Savage, now 55 years old, said in 2013. “I’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years (when he was a Pack assistant).”
Savage is clearly, as Ault told everyone 20 years ago, now one of the greatest college coaches in the country. But he has won at UCLA the same way he won as a pitcher at Reno High and Santa Clara and helped the Wolf Pack, USC and Irvine win. He’s done it with dedication, attention to detail, determination and a devotion to baseball and family. Just like L.J., Eileen, Len and Pete taught him.
So, yes, Chris Ault was right. Gary Powers was right. Mike Gillespie was right. Dan Guerrero was right. Bill Penaluna was right. Len, Pete, Eileen and L.J. were right.
John Savage is a baseball treasure.