John Savage’s path to UCLA paved by work and chance

On June 6, 1983, John Savage graduated from Reno High and became the New York Yankees’ sixth-round draft pick. On June 6, 1986, after a collegiate career at Santa Clara, he was plucked out of the 16th round by the Cincinnati Reds. On June 6, 1992, he was married at Our Lady of the Snows, a red-bricked Reno church that hosted a crowd of about 400 — an unintended coincidence, he insists with a laugh.

But it wasn’t until six years later that Savage, now nearing a decade as UCLA’s head baseball coach, noticed the odd chronology. Then in his second season as USC’s pitching coach, he found himself in Omaha celebrating a national championship. June 6, 1998.

“That’s when it became apparent that day was special to me,” he says.

As June 6 rolls by again, another national championship is perhaps the only hole left on his stellar resume — the bulk of which he’s built in Westwood.

Now in his ninth year as a Bruin, Savage has become synonymous with the program he has crafted into a perennial contender. After an eighth-place conference finish in his 2005 debut, his UCLA teams have placed third, third, third, third, second, first, first and third. The Bruins have hosted four straight regionals, and earned College World Series berths in two of the last three years.

Entering this weekend’s Super Regional at Cal State Fullerton, Savage is already one victory away from tying the Bruins’ all-time mark for all-time postseason wins. His predecessor Gary Adams, a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, spread out his record 26 over 30 seasons.

When asked about Savage, many close to him mention his unparalleled work ethic and knack for finding talent. UCLA assistant T.J. Bruce says that the 48-year-old is always the first one at Jackie Robinson Stadium after a weekend trip. Even after 45-minute drives from the office back to their respective homes, one often calls the other to bounce ideas.

Bishop Amat High coach Andy Nieto, who worked alongside Savage as a USC assistant, compared his recruiting efforts to “that Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door. He is going to recruit you, he’s going to recruit the parents. He’s going to make you say yes.”

UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie — the skipper of USC’s 1998 championship squad — swears that Savage has no bigger fan than him.

But as in baseball, where the right bounce can turn into a timely run, Savage’s path has been marked by happenstance.

Following an unremarkable minor league career that ended with the Reno Silver Sox in 1988 — he went 2-14 record that year with a 8.21 ERA — Savage enrolled at Nevada to finish his degree. There, he soon became an undergraduate assistant. After one season, head coach Gary Powers hired him full-time. By 1994, the team had won a Big West title.

Savage spent weeks at a time recruiting in Southern California, shacking up in hotels as he dialed away countless numbers. Gillespie noticed. Despite never having talked to the young coach, the USC coach was impressed by how often he kept seeing Savage at high school games. When a job opened in 1996, Gillespie visited Reno.

He spent the weekend with Savage and his wife, Lisa. By then, Gillespie had asked around and become familiar with Savage’s methods. As they reviewed his schedules, practice plans, recruiting procedures — very detailed, very well organized — Gillespie felt for a sense of their communication, their mutual fit. While he declined to disclose
the other candidates, he admits that the choice was relatively easy.

Savage thought he was a longshot: “I remember to this day, about a week later, he offered me a job. It changed everything.”

“I think he was prepared to be a successful and really good head coach then,” Gillespie says. “I don’t really think he had to grow into that. He had already grown into that. He was much younger, but he certainly could have. He was too good. He was too relentless a worker.”

At USC, Savage coached Seth Etherton — who spurned a ninth-round selection and $75,000 bonus — to 1998 national player of the year honors and a first-round spot with the Angels. After that same draft, Barry Zito turned down a third-round selection out of Pierce College to join the Trojans for an All-American season. Not long afterward, Mark Prior transferred from Vanderbilt to become USC’s only Golden Spikes winner.

Now, a bit of luck plays in. Savage had married the daughter of Chris Ault, pistol-offense innovator and Nevada’s then-athletic director. At a Big West meeting, Ault approached UC Irvine’s Dan Guerrero: If you ever revive your baseball program, take a look at my son-in-law.

When the Anteaters — dormant since 1992 — returned at the turn of the century, Guerrero listened. Savage and his staff had a full year to build a program from scratch, then won 33 games in their 2002 debut. After a regional appearance in 2004, Guerrero called Savage again, this time hiring him at UCLA.

He wants this to be his last job. Savage has had the good career fortune of geographical stability, and he has no desire to uproot Lisa — the heart and soul of the family, he says — or their four children. His oldest daughter, Julia, is an incoming Bruin.

It also doesn’t hurt that UCLA has clearly entered the John Savage era. No one can deny what he’s done for Bruins, but a championship — well, that would make it all the sweeter.

“It’s a stamp,” he says. “It changes how people perceive you. It changes how people perceive the program. There doesn’t seem to be as many questions when you do that. I look at consistency. There’s a lot of great coaches out there who never won a championship. …

“Does that make them a failure? Of course not. You’ve got to be very, very good. And you’ve got to have a little luck.”