Prep Football

Sabers' metrics: A formula that would overhaul Iowa high school sports classification

City High football coach wants to level the playing field based on more than enrollment

Iowa City High football coach Dan Sabers talks to his players during football practice in 2018. Sabers is pushing a new
Iowa City High football coach Dan Sabers talks to his players during football practice in 2018. Sabers is pushing a new classification system based on more than pure enrollment. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Dan Sabers sees a growing inequity in big-school Iowa high school football, and a shrinking list of true contenders.

Success has fled the cities and bolted for the suburbs.

The football coach at Iowa City High, Sabers has done some thorough research on the matter. His findings include these disparities:

During the last 10 years, Des Moines public schools (East, North, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Hoover) have played seven suburban schools (West Des Moines Dowling, West Des Moines Valley, Ankeny, Ankeny Centennial, Johnston, Waukee and Urbandale) 92 times. The city schools are 0-92, with an average score of 51-10.

 The Davenport public schools (West, North and Central) have played suburban schools Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley and parochial school Davenport Assumption 65 times with a record of 1-64.

"I feel the tide is starting to turn."

- Dan Sabers

Iowa City High football coach

In addition, seven schools have won Class 4A state championships in the past 28 years. West Des Moines Dowling has won nine, including each of the last six.

In the same period, West Des Moines Valley owns five 4A titles, Bettendorf and City High four, Iowa City West three, Ankeny two and Cedar Rapids Xavier one.

Valley, Bettendorf and Ankeny are suburban schools. Xavier, which moved down a class and has won the last two 3A titles, is a private school.

Dowling is both.

As for City High and West:


“Iowa City is pretty fortunate,” Sabers said. “With the University of Iowa here, some good bloodlines come through here.”

Enrollment isn’t the lone gauge for the haves and the have-nots, according to Sabers. Socioeconomics is.

He has an ally in Matt Carver, legal services director for School Administators of Iowa.

“Club sports have become very expensive, and kids from free-and-reduced-lunch homes ... often they’re not in position to be playing in club sport activities, some of which begin at 5 or 6 or 7 years old,” Carver said.

“Often they’re introduced to a sport 6-7 years after other kids. It doesn’t result in a level playing field.

“You look at classification, and it goes far beyond football. It needs to be addressed for all activities. It’s an equity issue.”

So here is Sabers’ model for football: Eight classes, with classification based on three major factors — enrollment, socioeconomics (specifically, percentage of students on free and reduced lunch) and recent success.

“It’s not a perfect formula,” he said. “But the thing about the (Iowa High School Athletic Association) is that they go with simple. And simple isn’t working.”

Sabers favors a big-school class of only 16 schools, eight of which would make the playoffs.

His “West” district consists of Valley, Dowling, Waukee, Southeast Polk, Johnston, Ankeny, Ankeny Centennial and either Ames or Urbandale.


Schools in his “East” district are City High, Iowa City West, Xavier, Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Cedar Falls, Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley and either Cedar Rapids Prairie or Linn-Mar.

The IHSAA has always used a classification system based solely on enrollment. Each year, every school submits a number of students in grades 9-11. Those numbers are placed in a file called BEDS Documents.

“Since 2008, we have had a classification committee that has consisted of superintendents, principals and athletics directors from large and small schools, public and non-public schools. We look at all of the classifications,” said Todd Tharp, assistant director at the IHSAA. “We have looked at all kinds of factors — socioeconomics, free and reduced lunch, multipliers, success factors, open enrollment.

“If Dan wants to send his formula to us, we will send it to our competition committee.”

Sabers said his model is gaining momentum from administrators from urban schools that are getting left behind on the football field.

“I feel the tide is starting to turn,” he said.

Carver said, “I anticipate there will be a significant number of urban schools, and some rural schools, that will push for a resolution for change in the next few months. I anticipate a large number of school districts to consider a resolution to look at the current classification system.”

Compared to their big-city brethren from Des Moines, Davenport, Waterloo and Sioux City, the three Cedar Rapids teams have been relatively successful in recent years. Washington reached the 4A state final in 2003 and 2014, then Kennedy got to the championship game in 2015. Jefferson won a playoff game in 2015.

Jefferson AD Chris Deam has mixed feelings about Sabers’ plan.

“I’m not sure if success should be part of the equation, because it can change so quickly. One good class or one weak class can change success drastically,” Deam said.


“I would say I’m a proponent of an socioeconomic equalizer, but on the other hand, we’re trying to teach our kids here to fight hard and work hard regardless of circumstance. There’s no socioeconomic equalizer in the real world.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.