Remembering Pete Saco: Longtime Sacramento Bee reporter Joe Davidson paints the big picture of a big man

Joe Davidson has covered high school sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1989. He knew Pete Saco well over the years through many visits and observations.

Today we asked him to share some of his most treasured memories of Saco, who died Sunday at the age of 70 after a long bout with stomach cancer.

Also read Davidson’s news story today on Saco in The Bee

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I can still see Pete Saco’s face, his pride, the anguish, the tears. He didn’t need a microphone. His voice boomed and his themes resonated deeply.

Saco was the hugely influential CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Commissioner from 1993-2014 who died Sunday from stomach cancer at 70, and nothing delighted the man more than sharing a story. Especially one that had a good hook, a good ending and a lasting message.

Saco was a big man with a big personality and he embraced the big picture. He was big on being firm and fair, of enforcing rules as a governing body for high school sports. We all know that without rules, it’d be rogue at a level of competition where rogue should not be allowed.

Saco was inspired by his father, Pete Sr. The elder Saco was the idol to kid Saco, and Saco honored his father right to the day he died of cancer in 1984. He did so by doing the right thing.

Saco shared this story with me with all manner of emotion, with a laugh, with sorrow, explaining months before his CIF retirement about a long ago Little League baseball game. It was in 1965 in South San Francisco, a championship game. Bases loaded. Two outs. Final at bat. The drama was as thick as the incoming marine layer.

Keeping score, perspective

Saco was 14, two years removed from playing for his father. Saco was the scorekeeper that night, so attached to his father that he didn’t want to miss out on the action or time with him. A Saco Sr. batter hit the ball down the third-base line. It was ruled fair, by a hair, and Team Saco won 2-1.

Or did it?

The opposing coach argued that the ball was foul, by an inch. Saco Sr. asked the umpire what he saw. The umpire said his view was blocked so he wasn’t sure what he saw. Saco Sr. suggested something no one would do today. He said, “Let’s put runners back on base and do it again.” The umpire agreed. Saco Sr.’s fan base did not.

Saco recalled in 2014, “People are booing and hissing Dad. The next pitch is a pop up and we lose 1-0.”

Saco then added in our talk, “My dad worked for Lockheed defense, shooting missiles into the ocean, but his real passion was kids and coaching. He demanded fairness. We got in the car after that game and he put two fingers into my chest and said, ‘Remember, do what is right, not what is popular!’

That stuck with Saco. He used that theme during his high school coaching and athletic director days at Lodi. And during his CIF section role, and for years after as the CIF’s director for state golf and state basketball. Do what’s right.

“Everything I’ve done in this job,” Saco told me in 2014, “I’ve tried to do by doing the right thing. Even though it hasn’t always been the most popular thing.”

Reveling, expansion, balance

Saco didn’t make the rules for the SJS, the second largest of the 10 governing offices for the CIF, but he sure enforced them. His office was (and still is) deluged with calls or suggestions that the CIF doesn’t care about kids, that it’s a selfish, money grab operation.

Pete Saco. Photo: Courtesy of Sac-Joaquin Section

Section commissioners up and down the state are defeated regularly about the eligibility of players, or transfers, or ejections, or sportsmanship, or school realignment.

Saco came up with the idea of ​​the 30-day sit-out rule for transfers, to help curb the idea of ​​kids shopping for schools. His biggest fear was that prep sports would become club sports, where people come and go and to stern with rules and regulations.

Saco worried that public schools would win so few state championships with all the private-school powers gobbling up the hardware, so he came up with ideas to make sure things stayed balanced and fair.

Saco hatched the idea and then hammered them up the right channels to get the CIF State football playoffs started in 2006 after nearly 80 years without them. He was the one who pushed for the Open Division football game, the best against the best, and he pushed for a CIF Open Division for state basketball.

Saco wanted prep athletes to revel in their experiences because the high school experience goes in a flash. He came up with CIF football bowl expansion, stipulating that all section finalists would advance to a regional final whereas section commissioners before chose the teams that moved on.

Saco also insisted that for CIF basketball events at Arco Arena and then Golden 1, both in Sacramento, include a pre-game meeting in the back dressing rooms with team captains, a school administrator and game referees. This was the first warning, so to speak, that boorish behavior would not be tolerated. No taunting, no showboating. Saco invited me to observe some of these moments. It was superb leadership.

“We’re not going to let emotions and ego ruin our signature events here, because people are watching, and these teams represent their schools and towns and our section,” Saco once told me for a Sacramento Bee story.

No ‘wacko’ in Saco

Saco wasn’t involved in prep sports to win popularity contests. He was in it for all the right reasons. He said the heat was worth the joys. Saco once told me, “I’ve been called Wacko Saco, or the devil and many other profound things. You let it roll off your back, but yes, some of it stings. We’re not the bad guys here.”

Saco was every bit one of the good guys. He was a joy for the media to work with because he was available and honest and blunt. He urged all state schools to work with the media and laughed off any notion that those who cover prep sports are “the enemy or are rooting against you,” he recalled. “That’s just stupid. Any coach who is that paranoid or works that hard to create an issue shouldn’t be coaching kids.”

Pete Saco in front of the front door of his family South San Francisco home.  Photo: Facebook

Pete Saco in front of the front door of his family South San Francisco home. Photo: Facebook

Saco’s most trying time as SJS commissioner was in 2007. After a six-month investigation into the recruitment of 15 players from American Samoa to play football at Franklin High School in Stockton, Saco’s office dropped the hammer.

Franklin officials initially denied any wrongdoing, but eased up on that. Saco first implemented a five-year playoff ban for all Franklin athletics, a clear message. But Saco was a people person, an open book with an open-door policy, so he listened to those with concerns.

After meeting with administrators within the Stockton Unified School District, Saco reduced the playoff ban to two years, for football only. This case was later viewed by a federal judge as a landmark case.

“We had to do what was right,” Saco said then.

Treasured and beloved

Will DeBoard is the SJS’s longtime assistant commissioner, another close friend of Saco. DeBoard told me that Saco was “larger than life” and that he was “the face of the Sac-Joaquin Section” – all of it true. He also said with emotion, “We lost him way, way too soon. It’s totally unfair and it’s horrible.”

That is especially true. I had planned to meet with Saco and his wife of 42 years, Barbara, in their Placer County home twice in the last year. Both times we had to postpone when Saco’s health took a bad turn. Barbara, or Barb as Pete called her, reached out to me to let me know he had died. She said she was “heartbroken” and “my darkest day came this morning. My beloved Pete went home to heaven.”

Pete with his first love Barb, at perhaps his second, a San Francisco Giants' home game.  Photo: Facebook

Pete with his first love Barb, at perhaps his second, a San Francisco Giants’ home game. Photo: Facebook

Saco would not want his beloved Barb to worry, to be alone, to be sad. He told me a few years ago, “She’s my best friend. We weren’t blessed to have our own children, but we have each other. We talk a lot, laugh a lot. I couldn’t have done this without her. Soon, it’ll be our time.”

Ron Nocetti is another close Saco friend. He’s the CIF Director who said that Saco’s legacy will live on, and that Barb has a place to go whenever she wants to feel a sense of what her husband built.

“The way people in high school sports can honor Pete is to do the right thing,” Nocetti said. “We told Barb that she is part of the CIF family forever, and we are here for her, always.”

Saco in 2001 presented me with an SJS Life Membership Pass at an awards banquet. I was leaving the regional prep beat to cover the NBA and the Kings for The Bee, but much like Saco, I couldn’t stay away.

I returned to the local beat by 2006, where the best action and stories are. Saco teased me that his signature on the metal card was a scribble, a mess, about as good as my stories. I treasure his humor, his friendship and that card.

A sign Pete took a photo of in front of an Auburn restaurant he posted on Facebook with this message:

A sign Pete took a photo of in front of an Auburn restaurant he posted on Facebook with this message: “Great life rules! Take charge of your life!”

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