Bernie Saggau

“It’s impossible to overstate the impact Bernie’s more than 38 years leading the Iowa High School Athletic Association — and his countless motivational speeches delivered across the state and the country — have had on the well-being of young and old alike.”

~Ray Cole in “Hangin’ with Winners”

Talk about a life dedicated to education, Bernard E. “Bernie” Saggau absolutely lived it. No one had a greater impact on shaping the role and values of high school athletics and activities than Bernie did during his long run as executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). Bernie unfailingly recognized that, in Iowa, high school extracurricular activities take on extra meaning. He saw it reflected in the participation rates, the level of community support, the sportsmanship displayed, the media coverage, and the passion shown by fans. To this day, Bernie has the distinction of having had the longest tenure of any director in the history of the 50 state high school associations.

Bernie’s influence extended far beyond Iowa. He was elected president of the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations (NFHS), he served on the NFHS football rules committee for 32 years, chaired the basketball rules committee for 8 years, and was inducted into the NFHS Hall of Fame in 1993. He was presented the Distinguished Service Award by the National High School Coaches Association and the Award of Merit by the National High School Athletic Directors Association. He was also an active basketball official in the Big 8 Conference (now the Big 12 Conference) for 18 years, later serving for serving for 7 years as the Big 8 Conference supervisor of basketball officials.

My first up close and personal experience with Bernie took place in 1974 when he was the commencement speaker at Kingsley-Pierson High School. He gave a remarkable speech that night. One member of the graduating class was a young girl named Susan Henry who would become my wife a few years later! I’ve long since learned what a dynamic and nationally renowned public speaker Bernie is. In fact, Susan and I had dinner with he and his late wife, Lois, in 2004. We laughed about the coincidence of Bernie having spoken at Susan’s graduation. He told us that he had addressed well over 1,000 student bodies across the country during his time at the IHSAA.

While I was serving as president of the Siouxland Officials Association in the early 1980’s, Bernie accepted my invitation to be the keynote speaker at our annual dinner. He loved the bond and special fraternity that exists between coaches, referees, and high school officials. Bernie also agreed to speak at other events for me over the years, such as “Best of the Class” which was a program our television stations began in 1983 to honor the top academically-ranked high school seniors at graduation time. I can personally attest that Bernie’s speeches always touched on the values he held most dear: integrity, sportsmanship, citizenship, and patriotism. You could not find a better messenger than Bernie.

Bernie’s longtime colleague and friend, Bud Legg, once said this about Bernie’s management style: “Bernie did not mull problems but rather searched for ways to solve them and build consensus.” I witnessed this bold approach as both a television executive and high school referee. The television stations I was working at produced and/or carried the boys state basketball tournament championships for over 25 years. To this day, Bernie and I occasionally reminisce about how we worked off a handshake and never a formal, written agreement of any kind. He knew who he could trust, and you could always trust Bernie. If a problem or challenge arose, we would work together to address them quickly and to our mutual benefit.

As a young referee, I attended numerous meetings and rules clinics where Bernie challenged coaches and officials with a similarly straight-forward and no-nonsense approach. Moreover, Bernie was always a leader. One great example of the extent to which that was true was the implementation of the three-point field goal in basketball in Iowa two full years before other states and the NCAA adopted it!

It was my great privilege and pleasure to work with Bernie on another important project, one that had the potential to be his lasting legacy: The Iowa Hall of Pride. Bernie approached me in 2002 to develop a marketing campaign and help raise funds for his vision of an interactive, technology-based attraction that would showcase the qualities and achievements of the many WINNERS our Iowa schools produce. The $12 million facility opened on February 23, 2005 as part of the new $217 million Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines. Throughout its 26,000 square feet, it paid tribute to Iowa icons in the Hall of Heroes; projected positive images and stories of Iowa and Iowans on the big screen in the Iowa Experience Theater; and offered a rotating, multitude of entertaining and educational displays in the Main Showcase Hall. A broad range of school activities were represented in more than 30 interactive exhibits including vocal and instrumental music, speech, theater, debate, cheerleading, officiating, wellness and 19 sports sanctioned by both the boys and girls athletic associations.

It was disappointing when the IHSAA announced in June 2022 that the Iowa Hall of Pride would be closing the doors to its physical location at the end of the month. Instead, the information, exhibits and resources would be moved to a digital platform called “Achieve” and available online. There is no question that the pandemic negatively impacted attendance in 2020 and 2021. But there was also ample evidence that the IHSAA did not provide the necessary oversight to ensure the Iowa Hall of Pride’s continuing success after its longtime director, Jack Lashier, retired in 2017. It’s doubtful that the new platform can “achieve” the Iowa Hall of Pride’s original mission: educating the future, preserving the past and celebrating the accomplishments of all Iowans.

Bernie began a well-deserved retirement on January 1, 2005. But a few months earlier, a “Tribute to Bernie” dinner was held at the Sioux City Convention Center. It was gratifying to be asked to serve as the Master of Ceremonies as Bernie was toasted — and occasionally roasted — with great fanfare. A long list of friends and colleagues joined me in recognizing his storied career. Bernie was introduced at the end of the evening by Rick Wulkow, who would succeed him as the IHSAA’s executive director.

One of the last actions the IHSAA’s Board of Control took prior to Bernie’s retirement was to establish the Bernie Saggau Award. It is given annually to a high school senior, at each and every member school, who best exemplifies the traits and characteristics of this special person who led the IHSAA. I can think of no better or more appropriate tribute to this extraordinary leader and WINNER.


Books –

Bernie Saggau & the Iowa Boys by Chuck Offenburger (Iowa High School Athletic Association, 2005)

Last Updated: October 30, 2022