As head coach of the Tigers, Savage posted a 112-84-2 record. Savage started his coaching and teaching career at Elgin, before moving on to Redmond and then to La Grande. (Observer file)
Former coach remembered for 1974 state title
The architect behind one of the greatest high school football upsets in Oregon history has passed away.
Lorence “Doc” Savage died at his home Saturday at the age of 80, losing a two-year battle with Alzheimer’s.
“It was hard to watch his memory go,” Mickey Savage, Doc’s wife, said. “I knew, having been a geriatric nurse for many years, the signs were there. He became more and more forgetful.”
Mickey Savage said the disease took her husband quickly.
“It’s devastating not to have him in my life anymore,” Mickey said. “He was a great husband and father. You see people with the disease that live for a long time, but the quality of life isn’t there. That’s tough to watch a loved one like that. It took Doc very quickly. It made it bittersweet.”
Savage coached football at La Grande High School from 1967 until retiring in 1988, after starting his teaching and coaching career at Elgin in 1956 and spending a decade in Redmond. While at Redmond, Savage compiled a 16-20 record coaching football.
As head coach of the Tigers, Savage posted a 112-84-2 record. But it was one season — 1974 — that Savage is ultimately remembered for.
Savage led the Tigers to an 8-1 regular season record and an Intermountain Conference championship. La Grande went on to stage one of the most memorable playoff runs in Oregon prep history. La Grande beat North Bend, Benson Tech and, finally, Corvallis for the Class AAA large schools state title, despite being the eighth-ranked team in the state heading into the championship game. La Grande outscored its opponents 58-14 in three playoff games, and the state title earned the Tigers the nickname ‘The Sage Brush and Jackrabbit Kids,” according to a 1974 Observer editorial.
“No one expected us to make it that far,” said Loren Huntsman, the starting quarterback. “We were a small school going up against the giants from the west side of the state. He took a bunch of pretty good football players and turned us into state champions.”
Doc was viewed as straight-laced and humble. He never had a problem spreading those values, even to the coaches he faced. Chuck Solberg, the head coach of Corvallis, had such an experience.
“Doc and Chuck knew each other really well,” Mickey said. “They talked before the state championship game. Chuck asked why Doc looked so calm, because he was a wreck. He was going on about how next year was going to be hard for him, since he was losing 17 seniors. Doc told him to pull himself together because Corvallis hadn’t beaten them yet.”
Mickey Savage said her husband loved being a teacher and having the chance to make a difference in the lives of his students.
“He would have gone back (to teaching) at (age) 75. Doc had a different way of dealing with kids,” she said. “Whether it was a good student or a bad student he wanted to help.
“The joke was ornery kids were always his favorite. He just wanted to help all the students. There were times he’d loan them his suit for prom or his car for an appointment downtown. He was always looking to help.”
After retiring from coaching, Savage found a new passion, serving as a Union County Commissioner for two terms. Savage helped lead the charge in the building of the Chaplin Building, which houses the county clerks, assessor and planner offices.
He also instigated changing the county court judgeship to a three-member commission system and headed the Union County Planning Committees for several years.
It doesn’t take talking to many people to realize that his memory will live on in the lives he changed.
“I don’t call many people heroes,” said Huntsman, who lives in Lyman, Wyo. “I have four brothers that I put into that group and Doc. I’m a better coach, teacher and person because of him.”
For Doc, it wasn’t a clear-cut choice when it came to teaching and coaching.
After a standout football career at Ontario High School, which included being named to the all-state team as a senior, Savage graduated in 1951 and decided to continue his playing career at then-Eastern Oregon State College.