Michael Bird new mug

Michael Bird

It was one of those rare moments when the stars align.

Although we have attended the same church over his time as the head of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, I really never talked much with Lake Martin resident Coach Steve Savarese until one recent fateful day.

Coach Savarese has been the head of AHSAA since 2006, and was only the fourth director of the association in its history.

In April, Savarese announced his retirement after 47 years of coaching, 25 as a head coach in Alabama – three at Ensley, twelve at Benjamin Russell, seven at Daphne, and three at McGill Toolen – with 287 wins and a 6A State Championship to show for it.   His coaching record is 287-84.

“I’ve had an awesome time,” Coach said in his final press conference.  “When you get to be 68, you just know. My son asked me recently, ‘How many more birthdays are you going to miss? How many more celebrations are you going to miss?”

The man has been honored by the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, developed the 7A classification, moved the Super Seven to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa and Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, and implemented a revenue-sharing program that has returned nearly $20 million to Alabama schools.  And Savarese was, famously, one of the coaches who turned down a job on Nick Saban’s staff when he came to Alabama in late 2006 as he had already committed to the AHSAA executive director position.

Again, in one of his final statements, Savarese said “I would not change anything regarding my career. I genuinely feel as if I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve tried to approach each day knowing that nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without enthusiasm. God has truly blessed me.”

Coach Savarese attended St. Vincent de Paul Church in Tallassee, where our family also attends, so we would often speak in passing – but that all changed on his last week as the AHSAA director.

It just so happened that we both had windshields that needed repair at Safelite in Montgomery.  We arrived at the same time, and I even opened the door for the man.

For the next couple of hours, we sat in the waiting room at Safelite and discussed everything from his experiences as a church musician (he plays guitar and sings) to how the small town athletic programs compare to the big city ones (no surprise, the big city ones have a lot more money pumping through them, but the small town ones are the heart of the AHSAA).

The biggest thing we talked about, however, was the recent ruling on Name, Image, and Likeness.

Governor Kay Ivey’s signing of this new law made Alabama the tenth state in the nation to legalize high school athletes’ name, image, and likeness to be used for advertising and recruitment purposes.

Savarese made no secret of his feelings about this new law: it is greedy and, he said, would have the opposite effect in the long run.

Coach asked me to imagine a poor small-town kid whose only hope of getting out might be the fact that he is a good athlete.  Someone could sell him on the idea that having his own social media profile might boost his chances in a large program.  Sure, the student will gain notice, but will this help his grades?  Coach compared it to how the NBA can recruit college players after a “one-and-done” year of college play; the NFL recruits players after “three-and-out” seasons in college.  As he said, what does this have to do with education?  It has everything to do with money.

He also talked about sports needing to be a part of the school curriculum.  Coach named a school in a Birmingham suburb that paid its former coach the same amount as a regular teacher, plus a supplement; but when that coach retired, this school ‘recruited’ a new coach and paid him $40,000 more than what the old coach made.

I was learning so much about the behind-the-scenes of the athletic association, I almost forgot that my window was being repaired.  The service person called me up, and I had to leave Coach Savarese.  But before I left, I made sure to thank him for his years of service to the young people of Alabama.  He’s truly one of the good guys.

Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools.