More than four decades as a solution provider on Iowa high school football sidelines helped Bob Sanger forge a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Whether he was cracking an opposing defense, unraveling somebody else’s offense or using football as a metaphor for life, the West Hancock coach has always been one of those guys his players could count on as an answer bank.
Sports, though, has a way of testing the resolve and revealing the character of its participants — even those who seem to have it all figured out. And even after 309 victories, 24 playoff appearances and two state championships, Sanger, the No. 9 coach on Iowa’s all-time wins list, is feeling baffled like never before in 46 seasons as a head coach.
His program, which reached the Class A title game in 2011, went 9-2 last year and has been a hallmark for consistency with only four losing records in the last 45 years, is staring into the facemask of a winless season — and Sanger isn’t quite sure which button to push.
“You’re just lost for things to do,” he said. “You second guess everything. That’s the problem. You know the kids are working hard and doing all they can do and putting it on the line and nothing happens. You just wonder if maybe there’s something else you should be doing.”
Truth is, there’s not much Sanger can do except continue to teach the game, how it applies to life itself and encourage his players to press on.
Graduation sacked the Eagles, sweeping away 18 seniors from last year’s squad, including all-state picks Chris Schleuger and Pat Smith. Combine that with small crop of players in the next class — there are only eight seniors on this year’s team, Sanger said all have been injured at some point this season and five are currently sidelined — and a handful of players who were ineligible at one point and it’s a combination for a football cataclysm.
Even in past years when West Hancock was light on talent, the Eagles could still bank on brawn. But they aren’t the physical force they’ve been throughout much of the Sanger era. They got outscored 269-6 in their first six games and a shot at a victory slipped through their grasp last week when they lost 22-20 against Southeast Webster of Burnside.
There’s optimism for a return to prominence in the future. Freshman Jordan Weiland scored two touchdowns last week, other underclassmen are playing key roles this season and West Hancock’s squad is unbeaten in freshman/sophomore competition.
“I think we’ll be better in another year, but it’s hard to wait,” Sanger said. “We never think about saying, ‘We’re going to have a bad year.’ We seem to reload.”
The Eagles have two more chances to claim a victory, but they have to contend with Prairie Valley of Gowrie and Mason City Newman, a pair of teams still competing for postseason spots. Sanger concedes that his team probably missed its best chance for a win last week and he said West Hancock will have to play its best football to have a shot the next two weeks.
The veteran coach’s message, though, continues to carry a tenor that stretches well beyond the next two Friday nights and maybe there’s a lesson in there that he can apply to his own situation.
“This is like going to work every day,” Sanger said. “When the conditions are bad, you’ve still got to go and do your job and get after it. That’s what we’re doing. When you give up, then you’re a quitter, then you’re a loser. Our kids won’t do that. They’ll work hard.
“You don’t always get what you want and things don’t always happen the way they’re supposed to happen, either. That’s life lessons for everybody — for coaches as well. When you have it so good, you think it’s never going to change. Then it proves you wrong.”