Savage prefers reserved role

Boys basketball: The shadows of the sideline have always suited Jerry Savage, especially now in the twilight of his 40-season coaching career.

February 26, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

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."

On decline

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.

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