Pete Saco remembered as ‘larger-than-life’ figure who created CIF state football playoffs

Carl Costas/Sacramento Bee file

Pete Saco could fill a doorway and then fill a room with his personality, his voice, his ideas, his humor and his presence.

Saco was the “larger than life” commissioner of the Sac-Joaquin Section for 21 years, ending in 2014. He wasn’t a lawmaker but was a rules enforcer. His passion for high school sports, the kids who played them and the people who coached them resulted in Saco putting into motion, among many things, the creation of the CIF state football championships, which have been a staple since 2006.

Saco died early Sunday morning at 70 from stomach cancer, a mountain of a man with a personality to match reduced to a shell of himself in his final year. His decline pained the San Francisco native who dedicated his career to prep sports, and it hurt those who knew him best, none more than his wife, Barbara, who said she is “heartbroken” adding: “My darkest day came this morning. My beloved Pete went home to heaven.”

Saco’s loss was felt throughout the region. The section office in Lodi bears Saco’s name. Those who work there said student-athletes competing in the past and today owe a lot to Saco’s vision.

“Pete was the face of the Sac-Joaquin Section,” said assistant Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner Will DeBoard, who worked with Saco for years. “He was such a larger-than-life figure. He was a guy who cared so much about high school sports and he wanted kids to have the best experience they could have. I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone who could deal with problems so easily and be so fast on his feet like Pete. They broke the mold with Pete, that’s for sure. He grooved on his job. We lost him way, way too soon. It’s totally unfair and it’s horrible.”

Before Saco oversaw massive growth in the section — the second largest of the 10 sections in the California Interscholastic Federation — he was a highly regarded teacher, coach and athletic director at Lodi High School. Saco replaced Clarke Coover as section commissioner in 1993. His ideas and sheer will were needed as he saw the section expand from 115 member schools to 193.

Saco was the driving force in implementing sportsmanship policies for championship basketball events at Arco Arena and then Golden 1 Center, including having referees, team captains and school administrators meet before games in the back tunnel to ensure everyone was going to be on their best behavior.

“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 The Bee. “We’re going to do it right or we’re not going to do it at all.”

Saco long stressed a theme he learned from his father — don’t do the popular thing, do the right thing. To that end, Saco was frequently the focal point of blame from parents, coaches, administrators and fans for anything from player eligibility to forfeits to school program realignment.

“All people saw were decisions that had to be made, eligibility or something, but they didn’t see all the anguish behind those decisions,” said Ron Nocetti, director of the CIF. “It’s not an easy job. I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair today if it wasn’t for Pete. I first met Pete when I was athletic director at Jesuit High School and he invited me to a state federated council in San Francisco in 2001 or ’02. He was a mentor ever since, a father figure to me. He fought for what was right and what was fair. He was always big on being grateful, of saying thank you. We don’t have enough of that today.”

John Williams worked with Saco as assistant section commissioner for 14 years and was his close friend for 25.

“I thought Pete would live to 95, because he was Pete,” Williams said. “He means a lot to me. He rescued me. I was in the newspaper business for years and I loved high school athletics. Told Pete one day he needed an assistant and a year later, I became his assistant. There are people who don’t appreciate or even like Pete, and those are scumbags of the world who did bad things. Everyone else loved Pete.”

There was a reason for that, Williams said.

“Everything with Pete was fun. He made it fun,” Williams said. “He was never stressed out. When he took the section job, his blood pressure actually went down. Who in their right mind would take a job like commissioner and have his blood pressure go down? Pete Saco, that’s who. He reveled in the chaos and found solutions.”

Saco’s blood pressure rose a bit in 2008. Saco was tasked with the challenge of convincing fellow section commissioners that Grant should represent the North in the first CIF Open Division Game, which showcases the best of the best. Saco practically climbed on top of a table, surrounded by other commissioners and directors from the main CIF office, arguing that 13-0 Grant of Sacramento should get that nod over two-loss De La Salle of Concord.

The committee agreed. They trusted the passion of Saco. Grant backed it up with a win over nationally ranked No. 2 Long Beach Poly. Saco then pushed to have all section football champions reach a regional title game, which was implemented in 2013. Grant capped the 2022 season as the area’s only state champion, doing so in Division 3-AA. Years ago, Grant likely would not have advanced past the section rounds, until Saco’s expansion settled in.

“Man, Pete was the one who bet on Grant in 2008,” Grant coach Carl Reed said. “He was a great man who lifted the section to higher levels and, along with us, put this section on the main stage of competing with anyone.”

Recalled Williams of that 2008 Open Division meeting, “I was in that room with Pete. I never in my life saw Pete nervous. He was nervous that day. I think that game, Grant beating Poly, was the most important game in the history of CIF state football. By Grant winning, it opened the eyes of everyone that teams in the North could play. It’s all because of Pete.”

Under Saco, the section created its own Hall of Fame, model coach awards, a day to honor women in athletics, and more. Saco after his Sac-Joaquin Section role remained involved as director of CIF state championship golf and basketball championships. He enjoyed being in the arena, surrounded by players, the bands and the games.

In retirement, Saco and Barb traveled the world. He took in an Francisco Giants games with Todd Reiswig, whom he coached at Lodi High 40 years ago and remained close, like a father-son relationship. Reiswig assisted Saco when they ran the CIF basketball finals.

“Pete was my beacon of life for everything,” said Reiswig, a longtime math teacher at Elk Grove High who in 1995 coached the Thundering Herd to the section Division I championship. “Pete was a tremendous basketball coach, girls and boys, and a lot of people don’t know that. Great commissioner. Great man.”

Saco’s closest friends said they are saddened that his retirement didn’t last longer. Saco soaked in the three Giants World Series seasons of 2010, 2012 and 2014. He and Barb traveled and enjoyed wine. When they took tours of the cities they visited, it wasn’t uncommon for the event coordinator to hand the microphone to Saco, the man who could communicate with anyone in any city in any part of the world.

“The good news for Pete is he lived a full life,” Williams said. “He lived 68 and a half years before he got sick. He got his money’s worth. We all wish he had more life to give.”

Said Reiswig, “This was the sweet spot. This was it, the time for Pete and Barb to travel and enjoy these years. Yes, they did a lot, but they wanted to do so much more. They deserved so much more.”

Said Nocetti about Barb, “We told Barb that she is part of the CIF family forever, and we are here for her, always.”

The Saco’s had no children, but they called all the coaches, athletes and administrators they so closely worked with and knew their family. Funeral services are pending.