Big Time in the Big Ten
Feb. 21, 2008
One of only two players in program history to be named a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Northwestern's Michele Savage helped the Wildcats to the 1990 Big Ten crown.
Michele Savage loves to tell people, "the Big Ten is big time." Arguably you could say the same thing about Savage. Since she first started playing basketball she has always found success, as a player and now as a coach.
Savage's playing days began in middle school at the suggestion of her gym teacher. After finding early success with the sport, she went on to play in high school at the now-defunct Immaculate Heart of Mary in Westchester, Ill. As a high school senior, Savage was chosen as one of the top-15 players in the nation. She also earned several accolades, including claiming the Chicago Sun-Times Girl's High School Basketball Player of the Year award and was named to the Chicago Tribune Girl's High School Basketball first team. It came as no surprise that she became a highly sought-after recruit.
Savage received several home visits from schools all across the country. However, she only took two official visits - one trip to Iowa and another to Northwestern. After her visits, she really took to the coaching staff at both Big Ten schools. Ultimately she preferred Northwestern for its location, just about 45 minutes away from her home in Addison, Ill. Savage also was lured to NU because of its strong academics.
"I knew by graduating from Northwestern - one of the top academic institutions in the country - it would help me in finding a great job," said Savage.
Once on campus, it didn't take long for Savage's skill to translate into success at the collegiate level. During her four years, she led Northwestern to its first-ever Big Ten title as well as its second NCAA victory in school history. Savage looks back on her four years fondly.
"I loved my teammates," said Savage. "We were a close-knit group."
One of those teammates, Kelly Cole, still stays in contact with Savage today. When asked about Savage, Cole describes her as "always willing to try anything." Savage's easy going personality never allowed her to get caught up with personal success.
"She could score 26 points in a game and you wouldn't even know it until we saw the stats," Cole recalled.
It was that team-first attitude that led to one of her greatest successes on the court - the 1990 Big Ten title. Savage recalls that Northwestern's coach at the time, Don Perrelli, would not stop for food if they lost. So that year the team won every road game, with NU's only losses suffered at home. At the time, Iowa and Ohio State were the national powerhouses.
"Winning the Big Ten was like the dawning of a new era," said Cole. "We put Northwestern on the map."
And that's exactly the respect for which the Wildcats had been fighting for. Being ranked as high as No. 13 in the country, the Wildcats always had that underdog mentality of being a small school against some of the top women's basketball powerhouses. The success of the 1990 season finally gave Northwestern national exposure. The team had solid support at home as well. Savage describes the atmosphere at Northwestern as wonderful. During her career, women's basketball was the winningest "major" sport (football, men's basketball and women's basketball) at the time. With upwards of a thousand fans in attendance for games, the team received a lot of attention both from fans and media.
Savage graduated from Northwestern in 1993 after a storied career with the Wildcats. One of only two players in NU history to be named a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, she was a Kodak All-District choice and honorable-mention Kodak All-American in 1990, 1991 and 1992 as well as earning All-America recognition from Street & Smith's in 1991. She helped lead the Wildcats to the 1990 Big Ten crown and back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament (1990 and 1991), while also guiding NU to consecutive 20-plus wins seasons. The Wildcats lost to South Carolina in the 1990 NCAA Tournament but rebounded the following year as Savage led the team to win its first-round matchup against Washington State- just the school's second-ever NCAA victory.
Twice nominated as NU female Athlete of the Year finalist in 1991 and 1992, she holds NU's career records for field goal percentage (.606) while ranking among the school's leaders in points (1,688), rebounds (681) and steals (200). A five-time Big Ten Player of the Week, Savage was named a second-team Big Ten Centennial squad selection, which recognized the best players in conference history. She averaged 25.2 points per game in 1990-91 in Big Ten action, the third-best average in conference history.
Savage also found success off the court and graduated with a degree in human development and social policy. She was interested in the field of education- but was more interested in the administrative side rather than teaching. By the time graduation rolled around, Savage definitely wanted to get away from basketball.
"We hoped she would end up coaching," said Cole. "But it wouldn't have surprised anyone if she hung up her shoes and never played again."
After graduation Savage found herself working in household finance for a couple years before moving over to financial aid at the University of Illinois- Chicago's medical school.
"It was a couple years out of school and away from playing basketball when I decided that if the opportunity were to pose itself, I would get back into basketball," said Savage.
It was then that Savage received a call from a friend of hers who had just accepted a coaching position at Chicago State. Savage cited missing the game as well as her readiness for a change that led her to coaching. Always up for the challenge, she left her job and headed to Chicago State as an assistant. Cole wasn't surprised to hear Savage was getting in to coaching.
"She really has a knack and a way with people," said Cole. "I wanted it for her skill and demeanor as well as her being such a great role model for other student-athletes."
Savage stayed at Chicago State for two seasons before moving on to coach at Toledo. She helped guide the Rockets to a Mid-American Conference crown and a mention in the Top 25 rankings. During the 1998-99, Toledo advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed, and its star player, Kim Knuth, the two-time Mid-America Conference Player of the Year, was named honorable-mention All-American. Her success in the coaching ranks came as no surprise to many.
Savage is currently in her seventh season as an assistant on the Green Wave coaching staff. At Tulane, she helped the Green Wave achieve its best season in school history as well as bringing in some of the top recruits in the country. On the court, Savage works mainly with the skill development and workouts of the post players. Several of Savage's players at Tulane, including Teana McKiver and Gwen Slaughter, went on to find success in the WNBA. Cole believes Savage's success as a coach comes from her great rapport with the players.
"Her players love her," said Cole. "They know she was a great player, so they have a lot of respect for her on the floor and what she has to say."
Currently Savage is just enjoying her time and success at Tulane. It is a great fit with Savage's family not too far away in Atlanta. But Savage is always up for the challenge, and hopes to eventually become a head coach. Although Savage enjoys the south and could see staying around the southern states, she would strongly consider a move back to the Big Ten and possibly her alma mater - Northwestern.
"I really enjoy what I am doing here at Tulane," said Savage. "But having found success as a player at Northwestern, I know what it takes to succeed in the Big Ten. So it would always be something to think about if it ever came up."
Regardless of where she ends up in a few years, she will surely find success.