By Mark Godi
News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Sac-Joaquin Section Commissioner Pete Saco held back the tears Thursday at the section office in Lodi. But it wasn’t easy. The former Lodi and Tokay coach and administrator announced at a news conference he would be retiring, effective Aug. 31. He informed the section’s board on Wednesday that he is done after 21 years.
Saco, 61, built a reputation as a hard-minded rule enforcer, in charge of overseeing transfer eligibility and playoffs for the section’s 195 high schools. He welled up as he began by thanking wife Barbara, before pulling himself together and explaining his decision.
“Forty years in education is a long time,” Saco said. “It’s time to let someone else come on board.
“You’ll probably still see me running events somewhere. I’ll do something, it’ll be project oriented. It won’t be the day to day grind.”
The idea to retire took seed about two years ago when the couple bought a house in Lincoln Hills, just northeast of Sacramento. Barbara recently retired from her human resources job after 35 years and the two plan to move from Lodi in the spring or summer.
Saco says he will remain available as a new commissioner steps in so that the process goes smoothly. The deadline for applications for the job is March 7 and Saco guessed that more would be known regarding the hiring by the April board meeting. Assistant commissioner John Williams has been with the section for the last 14 years and said he would not be applying.
Saco likened his job to that of a highway patrolman, someone people don’t like when they are given a ticket. He said at the same time, it’s that highway patrolman people want help from when something is wrong.
“I have been called the devil twice,” Saco said. “I’ve also been called other profane names and that’s OK. I will miss that anxiety each morning of ‘what’s next.’”
Saco grew up in San Francisco and went to El Camino High School where he played baseball and golf. After two years at Skyline Junior College, he transferred to Cal State East Bay and graduated in 1974. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Saco taught at Tokay and coached freshman-sophomore boys basketball. Stints as Lodi’s boys and girls basketball coach followed as did jobs as Lodi’s athletic director and vice principal.
It was Saco’s roles at Lodi that helped him get hired as commissioner.
Because Lodi is in the center of the section’s boundaries, former commissioner Clarke Coover would contact Saco about using Lodi’s cafeteria for meetings.
“I’d open the cafeteria and stick around for the meetings because I had to close it,” Saco said. “The next thing I know, I’m on the board of managers. Next thing after that, Clarke says he’s retiring.”
Under Saco’s watch, the section returned over $1.4 million in profits to its member schools and over a million in mileage cost. Last year, the section lost money for the first time in his tenure, just over $70,000. He addressed the issue Thursday by saying this year is projecting, “much better.”
He acknowledged his most trying time was the Franklin High recruiting scandal in 2007. An exhaustive investigation uncovered a pipeline to Samoan football players that resulted in harsh sanctions against the school and made national headlines.
One of Saco’s greatest triumphs was spearheading the initiative for a state football bowl game system that began in 2006. The Dale Lackey Memorial Scholarship Program was also started under his watch, which has given more than $400,000 to athletes. He even helped rewrite the section’s constitution to spell out practice and dead periods for sports teams.
“It’s been a great ride and I can safely say I came to work every day with a bounce in my step,” Saco said. “I’m looking forward to some golf and a little more travel, catch the fresh air.”