'We need to get back to the Final Four': Lisa Bluder's mission for Iowa

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'We need to get back to the Final Four': Lisa Bluder's mission for Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Sitting at a table following one of the most electrifying moments in Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s 40 years, Iowa women’s basketball Lisa Bluder scratched out every word from a voice three stages past hoarse.

It wasn’t the screechy sounds from two hours of shouting and a dose of the common cold that made what the winningest women’s basketball coach in Big Ten history said memorable. It was her dose of humility that accompanied the Hawkeyes’ 86-85 win that day over No. 2 Indiana — and why they were drubbed in the previous game at Maryland by 28 points — that makes her both beloved and iconic around here.

“It was my fault in that (Maryland) game and the way that we lost,” Bluder said, “because I didn’t have them prepared for that defense. So, it’s not on them; that was on me.”

Iowa players Monika Czinano and Caitlin Clark smiled and offered up laughs that resembled scoffs.

“Her leadership, like her admitting to making a mistake in the Maryland game like she just did, that’s what great leaders do,” Czinano said. “They take the blame for things, and it’s not just all her fault.”

“Trust me,” Clark interrupted.

Bluder, 61, often combines opposite traits that juxtaposed work wonders with her players. In a game against Nebraska, a visibly frustrated Clark, The Athletic’s player of the year, looked to the bench and made an X motion with her hands after her pass bounced off a teammate’s hands. At the next dead ball, Bluder took out Clark, lectured her and even waved a finger at her superstar. Barely a minute later, Clark was back in the game with no disruption the rest of the game.

Bluder’s in-game disappointment is captured more by a stern look than a yell. Good execution is met with an encouraging, “Beautiful!” Every Halloween, Bluder dresses up in a costume for practice. In 2019, she was Ruth “Bluder” Ginsburg. A year later, she rode a golf cart to the court as a dead ringer for Carol Baskin of “Tiger King.”

“She definitely knows when she needs to be serious and be fiery for us,” Clark said. “At the same time, she’s so fun and goofy. Like when you go out to dinner with her, she’s one of the funniest people around. Somebody asked if she had a job, what would it be if it wasn’t basketball? I think she’d be a comedian. She’s pretty funny.”

But don’t mistake Bluder’s comedic personality and warm exterior for a lack of competitiveness. She was the last major hire by longtime Iowa women’s athletics director Dr. Christine Grant, a giant figure in crafting, maintaining and fighting for Title IX in the 1970s and 1980s. Long after her mentor retired, Bluder regularly took her players to Grant’s residence to learn about the law, and she remains a staunch defender of Grant’s legacy and her fight for equality.

Bluder extends that passion to the court. In her 38 seasons as a head coach, Bluder has won more than 68 percent of her games (845-389). In 23 years at Iowa — the longest-tenured Big Ten coach — Bluder is 489-248 overall and 247-142 in Big Ten action. Only Bob Knight, Tom Izzo and Gene Keady have more Big Ten basketball wins than Bluder, who in December passed her Iowa predecessor once-removed C. Vivian Stringer as the leader in women’s basketball league victories.

Iowa has qualified for 12 of the last 14 NCAA Tournaments, advancing to one Elite Eight (2019) and earning three Sweet 16 appearances (2015, 2019, 2021). Bluder’s teams have won three of the last five Big Ten tournament titles and produced five of the last six Big Ten MVPs (Megan Gustafson in 2018-19, Kathleen Doyle in 2020, Clark this season and last). This season, the Hawkeyes will be attempting to redeem themselves from last season’s early NCAA Tournament exit, a shocking home loss to Creighton in the second round.

The fan base has only surged since then, expecting more from Iowa this season. Iowa set a Big Ten record for average attendance at 10,738. With Clark leading the way, the Hawkeyes have become a must-see squad on the road with attendance soaring by 3,662 over opponents’ average. In the Big Ten tournament title game, a 105-72 thrashing of Ohio State, the crowd of 9,505 set a single-session attendance record.

This could be the year Iowa — and Bluder — reaches new heights. The Hawkeyes are a strong candidate for a No. 1 seed — Bluder’s best shot at reaching a destination only Stringer found at Iowa, and that was back in 1993.

“We need to get back to the Final Four,” she said. “There’s no doubt we have to do that. It’s been a while. I mean, teams are judged on that.”

Bluder grew up as a multisport athlete in Marion, Iowa — about 30 miles north of Iowa City. She played basketball at Northern Iowa, serving as a three-time captain from 1979 to 1983 and scoring 1,036 points. After graduation, she spent a year working in marketing and referee evaluation for the Gateway Conference before a woman handed fiance David Bluder a classified ad in the Quad-City Times. St. Ambrose College had a late-summer opening for a women’s basketball coach. On Sept. 17, 1984, she was introduced as head coach.

“How I got my job, it would never happen again. Ever,” Bluder said. “(David) called me up and it was a typewriter day. So, I typed out my resume and sent it. … I interviewed and got the job.”

At 23 and just weeks from marrying David, Bluder took over the NAIA team but had little idea how to run a program. So, she immersed herself in learning the trade by attending clinics, reading books and collecting VHS coaching tapes. She traveled to nearby college campuses, returning to Northern Iowa to watch Eldon Miller conduct men’s practices. She drove about an hour west to Iowa City to learn from Stringer. In six years, Bluder guided St. Ambrose to a 169-36 (.824) record with four NAIA tournaments and two Final Four appearances. In 1990, she left for Drake, where her hiring was met with mixed reviews by star player Jan Jensen.

“It’s kind of, are you kidding me, right?” Jensen said. “New coach. I’m a senior. And then it ended up being really the best thing. She was just tremendous. She was really just a player’s coach and intense but knew how to make it fun. Obviously, it benefited me.”

The pairing would become decades-long. Jensen averaged 29.6 points per game that year and was the first of three Bluder-coached players to lead the nation in scoring, later joined by Gustafson in 2019 and Clark in 2022. Jensen played a season in Europe and then returned to Drake as a graduate assistant. Bluder hired both Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald as assistants, and three decades later, both remain at Bluder’s side. Fitzgerald transferred to a role as Bluder’s special assistant in 2019 while Jensen is Iowa’s associate head coach. Despite repeated opportunities to leave for head coaching positions, Jensen has stayed with Bluder, operating with the unofficial title of “post whisperer.” Wednesday, Jensen was named to an assistant coaches hall of fame.

Jensen could have replaced Bluder at Drake but chose Iowa in part to also learn from Grant. The coaches’ values click, and they see the game through the same lens. They prefer an up-tempo style of play, and their bond has grown over the years.

By the time Jensen’s daughter, Janie, was 3 weeks old, she had endured two open-heart surgeries. With her son, Jack, then just 3 years old, Jensen missed early season trips to Texas and Mexico. She worried about missing work, but the opposite was true of Bluder.

“I didn’t know this until later,” Jensen said. “I really loved my team, and my team was wanting to text and see (how) we’re doing. But (Bluder) had told them, ‘Ease up on that,’ because she knew I’d be up so late in answering every text and talking.

“What makes us so unique is like I’ve never missed anything of her kids from almost from birth to baptism to confirmation to graduation. She is as empathetic and genuine and egoless as she appears, and she is just a heck of a human being.”

Caitlin Clark and her coach celebrate last year’s Big Ten title. (Robert Goddin / USA TODAY Sports)

When Stringer left Iowa after her husband’s death, Bluder applied as her replacement, but Grant decided she wasn’t ready for the job. The second time, after 10 seasons at Drake, she was. Bluder also was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Emma, so she conducted the interview over the phone. A day later, Bluder was disappointed and figured she was “too Iowa modest,” perhaps failing to sell herself enough. She then called Grant directly and landed the job.

Bluder didn’t come to campus for the first month, and Grant called her daily to ask if she had her baby. Eventually, Bluder — and Emma — arrived. That year, she led the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten tournament title. This year will mark Bluder’s 17th NCAA Tournament appearance in 22 opportunities (the 2020 tournament was canceled because of the pandemic).

Her tenure has faced its challenges, and the pandemic shutdown was among the most difficult. But her stoic demeanor rubbed off on her players, which helped them navigate a tough period.

“I think she stayed calm through it all,” senior Kate Martin said. “Sometimes surprisingly calm.”

A mother of three, Bluder credits parenthood in helping her become more patient and “gentler” with athletes.

“You’re all in it together, right?” Bluder said. “Those days of the coach kind of being the dictator and yelling at the players all the time, those days are over with kids. They’re not going to take that. They don’t want to be coached that way. They don’t want to be parented that way.”

Adds Czinano: “She wants us to be great basketball players, but she wants us to be strong female leaders. She cares about us way more than just an athlete. She cares about us as people. She treats us like her own kids.”

In practice, Bluder’s bunch has fun. The players and coaches celebrate and laugh, but they’re also disciplined and tough hard-workers. Their personalities have rubbed off on their dedicated fans. Clark receives the loudest ovation during pregame introductions, but Bluder is a close second.

“What’s so fun for me is when the spotlight really shines on her,” Jensen said. “She just works hard, doesn’t have a major ego. All of her fans really think she’s so approachable, they could sit down and have a cup of coffee with her. I mean, legitimately, she’s just like that. Of course, she doesn’t have time for that. But they think she could.”

(Top photo of guard Caitlin Clark and coach Lisa Bluder: Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)