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Lisa Bluder leaves Iowa program on top

On3 imageby:Tom Kakert05/13/24


Very few coaches get to call their own shot on the way out.

Even fewer get to go out at the very top of their profession.

Lisa Bluder did just that on Monday afternoon when she announced her retirement from coaching at the University of Iowa.

Usually we see a long time coach limp to the end of their tenure and leave in less than ideal circumstances.

Not Bluder.

She will leave having guided the Iowa women’s basketball program to heights that they never thought were possible and dreams that they never thought they would realize. Yes, they fell short of the mountain top of winning a national title, but to make to back to back championship games is the stuff of legends and Lisa Bluder is just that, a true legend.

One of the things that I always admired about Bluder was she was a true grinder who worked her way up and never forgot where she came from. She got her start at what was then known as St. Ambrose College in Davenport, IA. Then athletic director Jim Fox, who was a legendary high school coach in his earlier years at Davenport Central High School, hired Bluder, who was in her early 20’s, to guide the Lady Bees program.

As she would tell me over the years, that job came with a paycheck of about $2,500 and she got to learn how to drive a van to get her players to games around the Midwest.

Years later in my previous life running a non-profit organization in the Quad Cities, we were honoring St. Ambrose athletics for their athletes mentoring kids and Jim Fox was coming to accept the award. I asked Bluder if she could come speak at the event and without hesitation she accepted and requested that she sit with Fox at the dinner.

She never ever forgot where she came from and the people who helped her along the way, including Dr. Christine Grant, who hired her to coach the Iowa women’s basketball team 24 years ago.

That goes to her staff too, where she is one of the most loyal people you will ever meet. I don’t think she would have stepped down today without knowing that her loyal assistant, Jan Jensen, would be elevated from associate head coach to head coach.

Bluder and Jensen were together at Drake and then with the Hawkeyes the past 24 seasons. Along with Jensen, Bluder also had Jenni Fitzgerald with her for run at Drake as player and assistant coach. The last five years, Coach Fitz has been Bluder’s special assistant breaking down game film and preparing the Hawkeye team.

What I also think about with Bluder is the culture she built within her program and never ever wavering when it comes to building it. The last two years we have all been able to get a glimpse of it as video of their circle has been shared with the rest of the world. It might seem hokey at times, but the sharing and team bonding that happens in that circle has helped this team remain close and win basketball games. I don’t think they make it to the national title game the last two years without it.

What is most interesting and in so many ways fitting is that the greatest coach in Iowa women’s basketball history is now leaving at the same time as the greatest player in program history.

The storybook ending would have been Caitlin Clark hitting a game winning shot in the national title game to beat South Carolina. She heads off to the WNBA and Bluder rides off into the sunset. But, this is as close to a storybook ending that you will find. While the Hawkeyes didn’t get the title, the journey and the ride was totally worth it and will be talked about for decades to come.

It makes total sense that with Clark moving on, Bluder moves on as well and they pass the baton to Jensen and the rest of the Iowa women’s basketball team to carve out their own path for the future.

What a ride it’s been.

24 years of great coaching with the last two years being the highest of highs for Iowa women’s hoops. Congrats to Lisa Bluder on doing what is so rare in sports, winning and doing it with class and dignity every step of the way.

Enjoy retirement!

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