Don’t call it a retirement.
“I don’t like that word,” Dan Sabers said last week, a little over a week after announcing he was “stepping down” as football coach at Iowa City High.
“Who knows what a year from now will bring?”
Sabers, 65, is one of those high school coaches you want your children to play for. We’re fortunate in Eastern Iowa to have many men and women like him — coaches who not only care about their sport, but the athletes they mold. Teaching these young women and men to be better at their game and helping them reach their potential is paramount, but showing them how to be good people is more important.
That’s what Sabers has done for 40 years at City High.
What will he miss most of all? The kids, of course.
“They keep me young,” he said. “There’s never a dull moment.”
Fortunately for Sabers and the City High athletes, he won’t be far, regardless of what else he’s doing a year from now. He will continue to teach at City High and work with athletes in the weight room.
You can take a coach off the sideline, but that doesn’t mean they will stop coaching.
“I think it’s what I was meant to do,” he said.
He’ll also miss the game nights — “I’m competitive, too” — matching wits with colleagues from Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Dubuque, Iowa City and across the state.
“All the things that everybody coaches for,” he said when asked what he’ll miss. “... the excitement of seeing a kid develop ... how they navigate their life.
“Certainly seeing a team come together.”
The Little Hawks once were kings of Class 4A football, winning state titles in 1993, ’94, ’96 and 2009.
“We’re still the last team from the east side to win it,” Sabers said, remembering that 14-0 team in 2009 when he was in charge.
Recently, though, winning hasn’t come easy. City finished 2-4 in this pandemic-shortened season. The Little Hawks were 2-7 in each of the previous three seasons, following a 9-2 campaign in 2016.
“Every coach wants to see kids experience success as much as possible,” Sabers said, acknowledging that 8-25 record the last four years made him start “second-guessing myself.
“It wears on you.”
Sabers has done too many good things at City High the past 40 years to be remembered for that recent downturn. He won 141 games in 20 seasons as head coach and that 2009 state championship. As an assistant to Larry Brown from 1981 to 2000, he helped the Little Hawks win those three other state titles.
“Coaching my two sons was very special,” he said, recalling his fondest moments. “All the great memories with Larry Brown ... so many special memories.”
Brown continued to play a big role in Sabers’ life and still does today.
“There are too many people to thank all of them that have helped me throughout this amazing journey,” he said in a release announcing his decision. “But certainly my wife and my family have always been there, and my mentor from my first day on at City High, Larry Brown.”
It was Brown, as a matter of fact, who told him in 2000 why he was stepping aside.
“I feel as though it’s time for somebody else to take over,” Sabers said, echoing his mentor’s words. “It was something I’d been thinking about for a year or two.
“I’m at peace with it now.”
And, although he doesn’t know what the future holds, he knows one thing.
“I’m not going away,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to be at the games. I’m still going to be cheering them on.”
That’s because coaches like Sabers truly believe the games they teach are more than just games.
And who can argue with that?
“Football is such a great game for high school kid,” he said.
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