‘Thing of destiny’: Legendary Midlands soccer coach recalls path on way to milestone

Phil Savitz had plans and visions of being a collegiate soccer coach.

One phone call changed that — and more than 40 years later Savitz still is going. The winningest soccer coach in South Carolina set another milestone on Friday as River Bluff defeated rival Lexington, 2-1, in a key Region 4-5A matchup.

River Bluff broke the 1-1 tie with a goal in the 75th minute.

It’s Savitz’s 800th win as head coach. According to National Federation of High School record books, he is just the fifth boys soccer coach in the country to win 800 or more matches in his career.

Savitz spent 33 years as Irmo’s head coach, winning 634 of his matches before moving over to River Bluff when the school opened in 2013.

“It wasn’t without a lot of good players, coaches, parent helpers, support from my family, my wonderful wife Jan that it all came together,” Savitz said. “We talked about it at Irmo being the Irmo soccer family and then at River Bluff being the River Bluff family. And people bought into that idea and really gave back to it. I am so appreciative of all the people that have.”

Getting the call

Savitz reflected this week on his career and what still drives him in his 44th season when many of his former colleagues have retired.

There was a chance Savitz, who didn’t play soccer until his senior year at AC Flora, might not have been able to earn any of his accomplishments. He accepted a graduate assistant job coaching soccer at UMass before Mark Berson convinced him to stay in South Carolina.

Berson was named the first USC men’s soccer coach in school history in 1978 and had Savitz, who played club soccer for the Gamecocks, to be his graduate assistant.

Savitz was finishing his second season as graduate assistant when he and Berson received a phone call in October of 1979 from Nicky Joseph, who was Irmo’s boys soccer coach and won back-to-back state championships in 1978-79.

But Joseph was looking to get out of coaching for a job in business. Joseph called Savitz and Berson to see if they knew anyone that wanted to coach the Yellow Jackets’ program.

“I told him me and Mark would brainstorm. I didn’t even consider it at first,” Savitz said. “But then they were running out of time and that is when Mark said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I could still do office hours that went toward my graduate assistant. He said, ‘It would be an opportunity to add to your resume.’

“So I thought about it and said I would do it.”

Savitz accepted the job as interim coach. But since he wasn’t a full-time employee at Irmo, the wins and losses that season didn’t go on his record and Jim Littlejohn’s name is seen in SC High School League’s Palmetto’s Finest record book.

The Yellow Jackets made it to the Class 4A championship that year before losing to TL Hanna in the state championship.

After the season, Savitz finished off the school year as substitute at Irmo Middle School while a teacher was on maternity leave. That led to a full-time teaching position and then Irmo athletic director Joe Turbeville hired Savitz as the full-time head coach.

“That is when all my priorities and my future changed. I was a coach and I love it. And then the Irmo thing came along and it seemed like it was a thing of destiny,” Savitz said.

Building a tradition

Under Savitz, Irmo became a powerhouse in Class 4A soccer. They made it to the state championship the following two seasons, defeating Spring Valley to win the championship in the 1981-82 season.

From 1980-81 to 2004-05 seasons, the Yellow Jackets won 13 state championships and finished runner-up six other times. Irmo won four consecutive championships on two different occasions from 1987-90 and 1995-98.

“Always been a competitive individual so I knew I would put in the hours and bring out the best in players. Most people who are successful are surrounded by a lot of good people. There is no coach I know that has won at any level that hasn’t had good players,” Savitz said. “Irmo was a big school and successful at a lot of sports. We were a large 4A school and I was lucky to get my parents, players to buy into my vision. I had a lot of great assistant coaches, parent volunteers and was in a great area.”

Thad Miller was an all-American at Irmo and played on Savitz’s first team to reach a state championship game team in 1981. The two are still together as Miller joined Savitz at River Bluff as an assistant back in the 2015-16 season.

“I have a picture when I played with him with a mustache and curly hair, so other than physical changes he is still the same,” Miller said at practice Wednesday. “That is the beauty of it. He believes in what he does, how you treat the players and putting in the structure to be successful.”

Savitz said a couple of college head coaching opportunities came up during his career at Wofford and College of Charleston, but he thought staying in high school was best for him and his family.

Savitz won his 14th state championship in his final year at Irmo in 2013 and became the first coach at River Bluff High School. The Gators won the 2016 state championship, which was held at Irmo High School and was Savitz’s 700th victory.

“It is almost surreal to look around and to see how many games I have coached here and how many big games I have coached here in this stadium,” Savitz said after that win over Clover. “And to take this program that came close two years in a row back here was a little bit Hollywood I say.”

The family of Irmo’s head coach Phil Savitz and the Irmo soccer team pose after winning the Class 4A Boys Soccer State Championship Saturday night in Gilbert. Irmo defeated Lexington 1-0 in a shootout.
The family of Irmo’s head coach Phil Savitz and the Irmo soccer team pose after winning the Class 4A Boys Soccer State Championship Saturday night in Gilbert. Irmo defeated Lexington 1-0 in a shootout.

How much longer

Savitz said he has no plans of retiring after the season. He has informed River Bluff he would like to come back for another year.

Savitz is a retired employee and can leave or be asked to leave at any time, but said he is fortunate that schools he has worked for have wanted him back.

Another championship would be nice to end his career — but for his players, not for him. The Gators entered Friday at 9-3 on the season ranked No. 7 in latest SC Soccer Coaches Class 5A rankings.

“Luckily I have the passion and energy for it,” Savitz said. “I’m so fortunate to have won 15 and been part of 24. It is surreal to think you had that many opportunities. I don’t need another championship, but I want it for every group that is fortunate to play for me.

“I want it for every group that I coach, but you can make special memories and have a great year without a championship. We would love it for this group of guys.”

River Bluff players and coaches celebrated after their championship win.
River Bluff players and coaches celebrated after their championship win.