By Robert Beeland
Photo by Kimberly Williams (C’17)
On Monday, April 11, a group gathered in the McGriff Alumni House to hear former general manager of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, executive director of the Senior Bowl, and alumnus of the university Phil Savage’s own experiences working in sports and advice as to how students with interest in sports can get involved. Savage, who graduated from Sewanee in 1987, played both football and baseball for the Tigers, and it was that ability to play sports in college that drew him to the Mountain in the first place. “I didn’t even know the difference between ‘Sewanee’ and ‘The University of the South,’” remarked Savage about his process during high school of finding a school that would allow him to continue his athletic career. Sewanee was the only school that offered him this option, and in 1983, he accepted the offer. When applying for collegiate coaching positions, Savage applied to 70 different schools, again receiving only one offer, from the University of Alabama. He accepted it, and there worked as a graduate assistant to the football team under the man who would become his mentor, Homer Smith, Alabama’s offensive coordinator at the time.
In 1990, Savage followed Smith to UCLA, where he coached Tight ends. Then, in 1991, Savage made the leap to the NFL and the Cleveland Browns, where he worked under current New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and current Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. Savage’s progression through the ranks of collegiate and professional football was made possible by the connections he made and his ability to promote himself. He noted that, in an unforgiving and increasingly impersonal industry, he was able to make a name for himself through his perseverance and his ability to effectively communicate. He implored his audience: “You’re going to be told ‘no’ a thousand times. You’ve got to look for that one ‘yes.’”
In 1996, Savage moved with the rest of the Browns franchise to Baltimore, where they were renamed the Ravens. In 2000, the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Savage as an integral part of the front-office operations. Then, in 2008, Savage returned to a new Cleveland Browns franchise where he was named Senior Vice President and General Manager.
Now, as the executive director of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Savage looks back on his career with a great appreciation for the communication skills that he developed as a student at Sewanee. Savage was an english major, and although he “couldn’t tell you two things about Shakespeare,” he insisted upon the importance of being able to clearly communicate. Savage ended his talk by beseeching his student audience to follow their passions and work at them continuously. In his words, “You’ve got to plant your seeds in your twenties, water them in your thirties, and then hope to reap the harvest in your forties.”