Jim Savage never wanted to leave.
But as a coach, it was something he had to consider.
Savage, best known for winning 11 wrestling championships during his coaching career at North Catholic and Father Judge high schools, is joining St. Joseph’s Prep in the same position.
Just as important, he’s going to Prep to be a math teacher, the same job he had at Judge.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but one Savage always pushed his wrestlers to make, so in reality, he took his own advice.
“It’s a little different than leaving North because I didn’t make the choice to leave North, I left there when it closed,” said Savage, a Port Richmond native and Fishtown resident who graduated from North in 1992. “It’s hard to leave. It’s hard for the kids, and if wrestling wasn’t there, it would be easier. It would be a much easier transition if I wasn’t a coach, it would have been much easier, but I expect them to continue to wrestle and I’ll always still be there for them.
“As a coach and as a teacher, you tell kids to be dynamic, be comfortable being uncomfortable and try new things. I’ve been at Judge for 21 years as a teacher. This was me getting out of my comfort zone and taking a risk, being dynamic. We preach it, and it will help me grow as a teacher and a person.”
It’ll be tough to grow as a coach, at least in the Catholic League.
After winning a pair of titles during his final two years as a wrestler at North, he won two more as an assistant coach with the Falcons. He then won six as the head coach at North, then won five more at Judge.
He’s won championships when his team was the favorite, he’s won titles when his team was an underdog, he’s led wrestlers to the state tournament and even had one state champion in Joe Galasso.
It’s pretty clear Savage is a great coach, he’s found success everywhere he’s been. But as an educator and a coach, he won’t accept much credit. He gives all the praise to his players and students.
“When kids are in college, I’ll always reach out to them, especially the kids who are wrestling in college because that’s really hard,” said Savage, who wrestled for La Salle University. “I’ll reach out a lot and we have Tyler Dombrowski who is in the Navy, he’s doing great. And he said, ‘I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.’ I told him it wasn’t me, it was him. I just try to show you that you can do it.
“Everything you accomplish, you did on your own. Work really hard and get the big picture. Sacrifice and commitment. Loyalty and commitment and in the sport of wrestling, you try to teach the kids, and it translates well into whatever they do. It was like that at North and the kids at Judge carved their own identity.”
Taking over the Prep wrestling job will be a lot different than what he did at Judge.
When he became the Crusaders coach, he didn’t come alone. Many guys he coached at North came with him after the school closed.
That gave him a great starting point. It wasn’t enough to win a championship right away, but it certainly gave him guys in the room who could show his new charges what’s expected.
At Prep, he’s coming alone, although he is bringing two assistant coaches with him. But it’s also a different situation in that, unlike at Judge, which had just added wrestling a few years before Savage arrived, Prep has been wrestling in the Catholic League since 1982.
The wrestling team is usually competitive and he’s excited to get started.
Savage looks to help kids become better in the classroom and on the mat, but he also enjoys hanging championship banners.
“The first thing I want to do is find out the culture of Prep wrestling, because when I came to Judge, I knew it,” Savage said. “I wasn’t coaching there, but I was teaching. Prep has great traditions in everything it does. They have some great assistant coaches, and they’re staying on.
“Every school has great athletes, and I know Prep does, too. The one thing that always impressed me about schools like La Salle and Prep is that they have kids who are willing to give wrestling a shot. They like to do a lot of activities. Not that Judge didn’t, but it just seems like schools like Prep are a little different.”
When the winter comes, Savage hopes the Hawks are among the best teams in the Catholic League, and nothing would make him happier than winning a championship. But just because he’s a Hawk now, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have that Crusader blood.
According to Savage, the kids at Judge were warriors who gave him everything they had, and for all the guys he had in the wrestling room, they’re still his wrestlers.
“It was hard telling them I was leaving, but as I told them, they know how to wrestle and they know how to train,” Savage said. “I’ll always be a Judge fan. And if they need me, I’m there. Any of them ever call me with anything and I’ll always be there for them.”
No matter how busy he is, Savage will be there for them. He credits his wife, Lizanne, with being an understanding wife and allowing him to spend a lot of time with the sport he loves.
“My wife is great, and we have a lot of time together,” Savage said. “She was an athlete and her brother was an athlete, so she knows how important it is. But she’s very understanding.”
She also understands how important Savage is to his wrestlers and students.
The way he looks at it, he’s just giving back to a sport that’s given so much to him.
“Wrestling is very important to me,” Savage said. “I don’t want to say without wrestling, I wouldn’t be where I am because I always got good grades. The trajectory of my life would have been so different and I owe everything to it, and I love the sport. I love being around it. I love coaching, I love watching it, I love just being around it. I’m thankful and I think the kids see what I have for it.
“I can’t wait to get started. Prep is a great school and it’s a great opportunity. Leaving Judge was so hard, but I’m excited.”