OMAHA—When John Savage finally held the national championship trophy above his head in triumph on the field at TD Ameritrade Park, it felt like destiny realized—for Savage, and for UCLA.
For decades, coaches and scouts considered the Bruins a sleeping giant on the West Coast. They produced major league talent on a consistent basis, but they made just two College World Series appearances in their history before Savage was hired to wake the giant in the summer of 2004.
In the last four years, Savage has led the Bruins to Omaha three times, capped by their first national title this season. He has built UCLA into a model program, and into the premier program on the West Coast—even surpassing old nemesis Cal State Fullerton, for the time being, at least. Savage has been a great coach for a long time, but he turned in his best coaching job this season, shepherding a team that hit just .250 to an undefeated postseason run. For building the Bruins into a juggernaut, Savage is Baseball America's 2013 College Coach of the Year.
Savage has celebrated a championship before. In 1998, he served as Mike Gillespie's pitching coach for the Southern California team that ended the Gorilla Ball era with a 21-14 win against Arizona State in the national title game. Savage said he thought about that 1998 team the night before winning his first title as a head coach at UCLA. Both teams finished 49-17, which struck Savage as a good omen. As Savage reflected on his time at USC with Gillespie, he got choked up with emotion.
|COACH OF THE YEAR WINNERS|
|1981:||Ron Fraser, Miami|
|1982:||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1983:||Barry Shollenberger, Alabama|
|1984:||Augie Garrido, Cal State Fullerton*|
|1985:||Ron Polk, Mississippi State|
|1986:||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|Dave Snow, Loyola Marymount|
|1987:||Mark Marquess, Stanford*|
|1988:||Jim Brock, Arizona State|
|1989:||Dave Snow, Long Beach State|
|1990:||Steve Webber, Georgia|
|1991:||Jim Hendry, Creighton|
|1992:||Andy Lopez, Pepperdine*|
|1993:||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1994:||Jim Morris, Miami|
|1995:||Rod Delmonico, Tennessee|
|1996:||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State*|
|1997:||Jim Wells, Alabama|
|1998:||Pat Murphy, Arizona State|
|1999:||Wayne Graham, Rice|
|2000:||Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2001:||Dave Van Horn, Nebraska|
|2002:||Augie Garrido, Texas*|
|2003:||George Horton, Cal State Fullerton|
|2004:||David Perno, Georgia|
|2005:||Rick Jones, Tulane|
|2006:||Pat Casey, Oregon State*|
|2007:||Dave Serrano, UC Irvine|
|2008:||Mike Fox, North Carolina|
|2009:||Paul Mainieri, Louisiana State*|
|2010:||Ray Tanner, South Carolina*|
|2011:||Kevin O'Sullivan, Florida|
|2012:||Mike Martin, Florida State|
|*Denotes won CWS that year|
"I can't say enough about what coach Gillespie has done for me and my family," Savage said. "He's the reason why I'm here. He hired me. I was working for coach (Gary) Powers at the University of Nevada, and we had good teams, and Mike hired me in 1997 and it changed my entire life, my family's life. My wife, Lisa, my kids—we all moved to Los Angeles. And, you know, I just can't thank Mike enough for what he did . . . I owe my entire career to coach Gillespie. He meant everything to me, as my family does."
Gillespie said he knew Savage by reputation only in the mid-1990s, but his reputation was sterling. So when the Trojans needed a new pitching coach, Gillespie flew to Reno to meet Savage. It didn't take Gillespie long to realize Savage was something special.
"I sat down with him in his office, saw how he did things in the office, the organization with the recruits," Gillespie recalled of that first meeting. "I talked to him at length about pitching. As I got to know him, he was just more and more impressive. As you spend a little time with him, you find that there's a lot to him and a lot to like.
"Then once we got to working together, his many, many qualities became even more apparent. The things I thought he was that led me to be interested in hiring him, they turned out to be true times 10—or true times 100."
Dan Guerrero was the athletic director at UC Irvine when the Anteaters decided to restart their dormant program. He tapped Savage to build UCI's program from the ground up, and within three years, the 'Eaters were in a regional.
"When we revived that program and had to hire a coach, I went out and hired John Savage, because I felt that he was the best pitching coach in America at that time," Guerrero said. "I felt like the Anteaters had a chance to make a quick run at an NCAA berth with a combination of pitching and defense, and we certainly did that in a short period of time."
Guerrero then moved on to UCLA, where he hired Savage again when Gary Adams retired in 2004. For Guerrero, a former UCLA second baseman during the 1970s, making the Bruins into a true baseball power was a priority.
"You go through the history and the legacy of the ballplayers that have played at UCLA, the major leagues are inundated with great Bruins," Guerrero said. "And despite that, that championship was elusive at UCLA. Bringing in John certainly created the opportunity for us to get here and to finish it off. It took us, obviously, three times in four years to finally get it down. But pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game, they were able to do it.
"This is something that we dreamed of from the very beginning, when we first got together. To be able to hug him and look him in the eye and say, 'We knew this day could come,' it was really a thrill for both of us."
Practice Made Proficient
This bunch of Bruins succeeded through focus and discipline as much as through talent. They committed themselves to getting every small detail right—an approach they learned from Savage. And that approach allowed the Bruins to execute defensively, on the mound and even at the plate, despite their lack of punch.
"We call ours a good practice team," Savage said. "For us to play good in the games, you have to do it in practice, and you have to do it in front of the coaches. We work hard, conditioning, weights, practice. We got better; we got better in this tournament. That was one of our goals was to get better with our time off."
Other coaches and scouts rave about Savage's work ethic, on the recruiting trail as well as the practice field. He takes a very active role in recruiting, and he has an uncanny ability to break down the strengths and weaknesses of countless players off the top of his head. Evaluating talent comes naturally to him, which combines with his work ethic to make him a recruiting master.
"No one works harder than Coach Savage," ace righty and CWS Most Outstanding Player Adam Plutko said. "I guarantee he got about five hours of sleep in two weeks out here. I swear to God, he has the same pencil for the last three years I've been in the program. It's the same freakin' one every time he charts. That's detail-oriented if ever I've seen it."
Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig are ideal Savage pitchers because they thrive off fastball command. Rare in the college ranks, Savage prefers to pound away with fastballs—he calls fastball command the foundation of his philosophy. That's one reason Savage has earned the admiration of professional scouts. Another reason is his personality.
"John treats everyone with respect," a West Coast crosschecker said. "He doesn't big league anyone."
Everyone who knows Savage can attest to that.
"He's the most genuine human I've ever met," Plutko said. "I couldn't be happier for Coach, what this means for his career."