Bernie Saggau

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 37 years 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 and 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 as the Big 8 Conference supervisor of basketball officials for 7 years. 

My first up close and personal experience with Bernie occurred in 1974 when he was the speaker at the Kingsley-Pierson high school commencement ceremony. He gave a remarkable speech that night. It so happened that 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 renown public speaker he is. In fact, Susan and I had dinner with Bernie and his late wife, Lois, in 2004. We laughed about the coincidence of Bernie having spoke at Susan’s graduation. He told us that he had spoken to 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 coaches, referees, and high school officials enjoy, and “blew the roof off the house”.  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.  So 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. 

His 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 broadcasting executive and as a 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 hand shake 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 his implementing the three-point field goal in basketball two full years before other states and the NCAA adopted it!

It was my great privilege and pleasure to work with Bernie Saggau on another important project, one that is certain to serve as his lasting legacy: The Iowa Hall of Pride. He approached me sometime in 2001-02 to develop a marketing campaign and to 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 highlights Iowa icons in the Hall of Heroes; projects positive images and stories of Iowa and Iowans on the big screen in the Iowa Experience Theater; and offers a rotating, multitude of entertaining and educational displays in the Main Showcase Hall. A broad range of school activities are 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. Bernie hand-picked Jack Lashier to serve as the Hall of Pride’s director. It was an honor to accept Jack’s invitation to serve on his executive advisory board from 2009-2014 as the facility continues to grow and meet its mission: Educating the future, Preserving the past & 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 for me to be asked to serve as the Master of Ceremonies as Bernie was toasted – and occasionally roasted – with great fanfare. It was a long list of friends and colleagues who joined me on the program to recognize him: Craig Lang, Beanie Cooper, Bill Turner, David Stead, Bruce Pickford, and Ted Stillwell. Bernie was appropriately introduced at the end of the evening by Rick Wulkow, who would succeed him as the IHSAA’s executive director. Bernie wrote to me afterwards to say, “It was a night I will long remember and you made it twice as memorable by doing such a great job as Master of Ceremonies.” To receive such a warm compliment from one of the most prolific public speakers our state has even seen was worth more than a $1 million!

One of the last actions the Iowa Board of Control of the IHSAA 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 characteristics of the WINNER who led the IHSAA for 37 years. I can think of no better tribute to an extraordinary leader and man. 

For more about the IHSAA’s storied history and the Bernie Saggau story, read Bernie Saggau & the Iowa Boys (2005) by Chuck Offenburger. A legend in own right, Chuck interviewed more than 400 people, wrote 193,000 words, filling about 500 pages. It’s a fun read that provides a wonderful insight into the IHSAA along with how its programs have positively impacted families, friends, schools and communities across the state. I will always keep my copy of the book wherein Bernie signed the inside cover including a note that, in part, read: “You’ve lived a lot of this story…I’m proud of all you have done…it was fun to watch!” As much as I value Bernie’s book, I will long treasure his personal note even more.


Books –

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

Last Updated: November 25, 2019