LODI — Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Pete Saco announced Thursday he’s retiring in August, ending a 21-year run that coincided with the dawn of the digital age, explosive growth within the section and the birth of a state bowl system for football.
It was, perhaps, the worst-kept secret in the section’s 72-year history, as word circulated throughout the section for several months that 2014 would be Saco’s last. He made it official Wednesday when he informed the section’s Board of Managers.
His first order of business at the podium Thursday was to thank his wife, Barbara.
“I want to thank a lot of people before I talk about what’s gone on, and the first person I want to thank is the lady at the back (of the conference room). She’s my wife of 35 years and without her support there’s no way … no way … this job could be done,” he said. “She’s been a great person to lean on, great support, and we’ve got some good times ahead of us.”
Saco, 61, probably never leaned on his wife more for support than during the section’s 2007 investigation into Stockton’s Franklin High School illegally recruiting players from American Samoa.
“At the time it took a big toll,” Saco said of the investigation, which alleged recruits were offered airfaire and room and board to play football at the school. “It was mentally exhausting.”
A five-year playoff ban for all sports at Franklin eventually was reduced to a two-year playoff ban for the football program only.
Another high-profile case in which Saco issued a controversial ruling involved Modesto Christian basketball players Marc Pratt and Richard Midgley, two transfer students from Britain.
A year after playing for the state’s Division 1 title in 2001 as juniors, they were ruled ineligible for their senior seasons. It was decided that, when combining their schooling in Britain and the United States, their high school eligibility had run out after the 2001 season.
Outside of the difficult rulings and investigations, Saco witnessed unprecedented growth in high school athletics in the San Joaquin Valley after taking over for the late Clarke Coover in 1993. Over the past 21 years, the section has grown from 115 schools to 195 – an increase of 70 percent.
Saco’s greatest legacy undoubtedly will be the CIF state football bowl system, which pits divisional champions from Northern and Southern California against one another. Prior to 2006, each of the state’s 10 sections crowned champions in their respective divisions, but it was left for the media and fans to determine which team was better.
Over the past eight seasons, the state bowl system has eliminated much of the guesswork in that process. And Saco was the driving force behind the implementation of that system.
“People thought I was nuts when I put out the state football proposal,” said Saco. “We didn’t have a lot of support when this started. Now, in December, it’s the headlines of all your newspapers.”
He said that a proposal to expand the playoff system, with each section champion advancing to a bowl game, has been proposed.
When asked about other changes he’s seen over the years, he pointed to the impact of the Internet and the growing impact it’s had on the office.
“If you start with the most recent, I think social media is the biggest,” Saco said when asked about the changes he’s witnessed during his career. “Now, in a Tweet, half the world can hear what’s going on. So we’ve had to adjust as an office. And I’ll tell you, this organization will have to change even more over the next five years to deal with some of that stuff.”
As he talked about the future, Saco also gave a nod toward his past, telling a story about his father that he said helped guide his management philosophy.
When Saco was a teenager, his father coached a baseball team that was playing for a league championship. The elder Saco’s team trailed by a run in the last inning, but had loaded the bases with two outs. A drive down the third-base produced two runs and an apparent victory. When the other coach protested, the elder Saco interrupted the argument and told the umpire that the ball was, indeed, foul. The would-be hero returned to the batter’s box where he promptly made the final out.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Saco, a native of San Francisco. “He poked two fingers in my chest and said, ‘Remember, what is right is not always what’s popular.’ That stayed with me.”
It’s what helped get him to Thursday’s announcement at the section’s Lodi office before a few members of the media and some staff members.
“It’s been a great ride,” Saco said. “I can safely say that I came to work every day with a little bounce in my step. I still do.”