Longtime Iowa City High football coach says goodbye, leaves lasting impact off field

After 40 years with the team, Iowa City High School head football coach Dan Sabers is stepping down from his position. Whether he was on the field or in the classroom, the impact Sabers had on his students and coaching staff is clear.


Hannah Kinson

City High head coach Dan Sabers congratulates the team after the first varsity football playoff game between City High and Ottumwa on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 at Frank Bates Field. The Little Hawks defeated the Bulldogs with a score 41-16. At the beginning of the game, announcers told the crowd to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

For Iowa City High’s head football coach Dan Sabers, it was never about the wins. Whether it was on the field or in the classroom, it was all about hard work.

Sabers said he has held on to his beliefs of determination and diligence since he was a kid and has passed it on to thousands of students and football players over his 40-year tenure as a coach at City High. 

In late October, Sabers announced he would be stepping down from his position after 40 seasons with the team. He was originally hired as an assistant coach under former head coach Larry Brown. When Brown retired in 2000, Sabers moved to the helm of the team. 

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, Sabers said he was extremely privileged to have Brown as his mentor. He said he always embraced Brown’s work ethic, even after Brown retired. 

“I was pretty rough around the edges when I came in,” he said. “[Larry] really helped me out. I have such tremendous respect for him and I’ve listened to everything he’s told me.”

As Sabers steps down from his coaching position, he said he is grateful for all of the memories and opportunities he has had with the team. 

“I’ve had a heck of a good run and I think it’s time for somebody else,” he said. “My main coaches who’ve been there for many years, there is tremendous respect among each other. We built off of each other and I hope if these guys [have] it in them and they want to, that they’ll keep [coaching]. They’re good people and I’m really proud of that.” 

He said he will continue to teach because it is a wonderful profession and cheer the team on from the sidelines. Sabers teaches health classes at Iowa City High and previously served as a P.E. teacher and a coach for other sports.

While football head coach, Sabers set the school record for total wins with the 2009 team that saw a 14-0 season. That team won the state title, as well. 

In his 40 years on staff, Sabers was part of 298 victories, seven state champion games, and four state titles. But victories weren’t what mattered to Sabers, Wilcox said. 

RELATED: City High moves to 4A title game 

He said Sabers always focused on teaching lessons and values off the field.

However, Sabers didn’t only impact his students and players. When Joe Wilcox joined the Iowa City High football team as an assistant coach 17 seasons ago, he said he didn’t know he would learn just as much as the players he coached on the field.

Wilcox joined the Little Hawks coaching staff just a few years into Sabers’ tenure as head coach. He said he didn’t know the impact Sabers would later have on him as a coach, husband, and father.

“[Sabers] talks about comparing [a] football team to a family, and understanding how some of the lessons we learn in the game you can apply later on in life,” he said. “That prepares you for what you go through in life, whether that’s adversity or other obstacles. I’ve grown up in my time on staff. I started in my mid-twenties and now I’m in my forties and I’m a dad now. I’ve been able to use a lot of those lessons that he teaches students.”

While Wilcox said it was bittersweet to see Sabers step down, he knows he was fortunate to coach with a legend like him. 

“One thing that’s always stood out to me is how regardless of if it was a win or a loss, the lessons he was able to focus on,” Wilcox said. “In the games, he’d ask how we can take this and learn from it off the field? How can we make better people and better players? He really cares about the community and…about making students better.”

Iowa City High has already begun the search for Sabers’s replacement, Wilcox said. 

RELATED: Iowa City West dominates City High again 

Former assistant coach Michael Pugh, who is currently an attorney, said the impact Sabers continues to leave on the Iowa City community is clear to more than just the students on his team. 

While Sabers was ahead of his time when it came to coaching, Pugh said the classroom is another place where Sabers thrived.

“He made a lot of kids better people,” Pugh said. “He is a phenomenal health teacher who has made kids healthier over the years.  He talks to students about proper sleep and nutrition and there’s a lot that he’s done in 40 years. It’s mind boggling to think about who he’s benefitted from sitting in his classroom or being on his team.”

Pugh said two sons played on the Little Hawks football team in the early 2010s, and he knew his kids were in good hands when it came to Sabers’ coaching.

 “I knew my kids would learn a lot about football, but Dan [Sabers] was also very tough,” he said. “I knew my kids would come out of the program a lot tougher. Dan really cared for the kids and did what he could to ensure the kids were successful on and off the field. As a parent, I was proud that my sons were playing for Dan.”

Pugh said Sabers’s retirement is the end of an era, but he is confident City High will continue its tradition of outstanding coaching when they hire someone new.

Sabers has been a member of the coaching staff for every playoff game the Little Hawks have played in. He also coached a handful of players who are currently in the NFL, including A.J. Derby, Tim Dwight, and Alonzo Cunningham. 

Tim Casey, an assistant coach for the Iowa City High football team who joined in 1986, said the commitment Sabers had to his players, his students, and the overall community cannot be overestimated. 

From standing with his players in red and white on the football field to putting in 12-hour days in the classroom, Casey said the impact of the coach’s work is clear to the thousands of students he’s taught. 

“[Sabers] has impacted so many students, and not just football players,” Casey said. “In the classroom, when he worked with girls’ basketball or the track team, he has impacted thousands and thousands of students and athletes. He is really committed to helping students and athletes become better.”

As Sabers leaves his position, Casey said it is important to remember all of the accomplishments the team has had with Sabers, and prepare for next season with a new head coach who has yet to be selected.

“Everybody who has been involved over these last couple of decades of football or played in the time span, there are so many tremendous accomplishments, from playoffs to state championships,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous ride.”