The longtime commissioner of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section (from 1996 to 2014) died last weekend after a long battle with cancer. His impact on high school athletics will be felt for decades not just in his section but throughout the state.
For the more than 40 years in which we’ve come to know many of the section commissioners in the California Interscholastic Federation, we can say that if there was one who cared just as much about student-athletes, coaches and schools from outside of his or her section that Pete Saco of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section would be first on the list.
Saco, who led the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section from 1996 to 2014, died on Sunday from a cancer battle at age 70 that it was known had reached hospice stage several months ago. His death announcement from the section came out just before the San Francisco 49ers were about to play the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game so many found out about it as they were checking social media on their phones and laptops just before the game or during it.
Although he started his coaching career in basketball, Saco will always be connected to the CIF state football championships. The CIF hadn’t had state football since 1927 when Pete took it upon himself to be the leader to come up with a proposal that could pass all the way through the CIF Federated Council. Working with the support of CIF state commissioner Marie Ishida and along with longtime SJS assistant commissioner John Williams and his own section board of managers, Saco got it done with a plan that was approved in 2005. Under that first plan, only section champions would be eligible, three divisions would be played over one day to start and there would be teams chosen by a committee of CIF section commissioners. The commissioners met after all of the 2005 section football championships were played for a rehearsal of how it might go in 2006.
Saco always knew that once three games were played that the state football championships would continue to grow. It did and in 2008 the Open Division was added. That also was the year that a team from his section, Grant of Sacramento, was involved in a tough race with perennial power De La Salle of Concord plus Bellarmine of San Jose for the NorCal Open berth. He knew the voters on the committee very well, knew which arguments for his team would have the most impact and Grant got the vote. We don’t know his politics, but Pete would have been a great legislator, able to craft bills and get them through Congress or a state senate.
By the time Saco retired in 2014, his final imprint on the CIF state football championships was a proposal that ensured that every CIF section championship team would be at least in a NorCal or SoCal regional. There would be no teams feeling left out. So the next time anyone is excited about winning any of the CIF state titles and raising a state title trophy (such as Grant in D3-AA just this last season) Pete should be thought about first. They really should name those trophies after him, just like the NBA does for trophies in honor of Bill Russell.
There was so much more to Saco than just CIF football. His other career highlights with the section included building the section’s current office building in Lodi, and starting several new projects, including the Dale Lackey Scholarship, the Women in Sports Leadership Conference, and the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame. We were honored to be the first media inductees into that Hall of Fame and always felt the support and encouragement from Pete to continue and build our work.
We also remember seeing Saco coach the Lodi High boys basketball team in the early 1980s. We were working at the Tracy Press at the time (while doing Cal-Hi Sports as a side gig) and he was one of those coaches who showed his passion often. We never saw Pete’s team play against Tokay in those years, but there were games between the Flames and Tigers when the Tiger boys were coached by a young coach named Tom Gonsalves, who later would win seven CIF state titles while coaching the girls at St. Mary’s of Stockton. Let’s just say we’ve heard those battles were legendary. Saco later became director of the CIF state basketball championships after he retired from the section and also was a director of the CIF state golf championships.
Perhaps Saco’s greatest challenge while commissioner of the section was dealing with an eligibility issue at Franklin High of Stockton. The Yellowjackets’ head coach in the early to mid-2000s was a wealthy developer, Tom Verner, who wanted to build up his alma-mater but definitely cut corners on rules to do it. In the 2007 season, after the section ruled several players ineligible, Verner (with the support of then Stockton Unified school board president Anthony Silva), decided to thumb his nose at the CIF and had those very same players in the lineup for a game against Tracy. As the story goes, Tracy’s football coach, Mark Stroup, called Saco, not knowing what to do. Saco told him to play the game and that Franklin would be dealt with the following week. At a press conference, Saco gave Franklin what amounted to a “death penalty,” suspending all sports at the school immediately. It is still the most severe punishment that any section commissioner has ever had to hand to out to any school in state history. The section eased some of the restrictions after Verner resigned.
Saco also got to know many of the athletic directors in his section very well. One of those was Ron Nocetti from Jesuit of Carmichael. Nocetti was encouraged by Saco to join the CIF state office, which he did and several years ago after the retirements of Ishida and then Roger Blake it was Nocetti who was named the CIF state executive director.
“For someone who was constantly expressing gratitude to those around him, I don’t think Pete received many thanks during his tenure as the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner,” Nocetti wrote in a tribute earlier this week. “And he never let that bother him. A lesson that I learned early on from Pete was something that his father told him at an early age, ‘You make sure that you always do what is right, not what is popular.’ I think we can all agree that Pete lived this philosophy every day of his incredible life.”
Pete met the “love of his life” in September of 1977 after a baseball game in South San Francisco. The El Camino High of South San Francisco grad married Barbara in 1979. They lived in Lodi as Saco was building his teaching/administrative career first at Tokay and then later at Lodi High. They retired to the Lincoln Hills area of Placer County after 2014 and enjoyed golfing and traveling until Pete’s illness.
Along with Barbara, Pete is survived brothers James and Joseph along with numerous nephews, nieces and cousins. His obituary also indicated that he had an “adopted” son in one of his former players, Todd Reiswig, and that the two talked every day.
Our thoughts and best wishes also go out to those at the section office still there who worked closely with Pete, especially assistant commissioner Will De Board.
Pete’s services will be Monday at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lincoln. Burial will be private at a Catholic cemetery the next day in Colma (near South San Francisco).