Iowa women’s basketball pushed by Bluder’s passion

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Iowa women’s basketball pushed by Bluder’s passion

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder talks to players during the Iowa/Northwestern Big Ten tournament basketball game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday, March, 1, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 55-45. Iowa takes on No.4 Minnesota on Friday. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder talks to players during the Iowa/Northwestern Big Ten tournament basketball game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday, March, 1, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 55-45. Iowa takes on No.4 Minnesota on Friday. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Lily Smith

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder talks to players during the Iowa/Northwestern Big Ten tournament basketball game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday, March, 1, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 55-45. Iowa takes on No.4 Minnesota on Friday. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Lily Smith

Lily Smith

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder talks to players during the Iowa/Northwestern Big Ten tournament basketball game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Thursday, March, 1, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 55-45. Iowa takes on No.4 Minnesota on Friday. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

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The life of a college coach is a long and grueling one.

Between long recruiting trips, numerous games and practices, it would be understandable for coaches to show fatigue every once in a while.

However, that fatigue never seems to find its way to Iowa women’s head coach Lisa Bluder, even in her 34th year of coaching.

Bluder never skips a beat.

Even at the end of the season, in the midst of a two-week stretch without a game and the day after a recruiting trip, Bluder’s passion keeps any weariness at bay.

“You would’ve thought it was the second day of practice in September,” assistant coach Jan Jensen said about the practice after their trip. “I mean, just the expectation, and the demand, and the flow. That is something that has never lessened. [That] week, even though it was light and fun, she never skipped a beat, and that passion is contagious for our players.”

That kind of never-ending enthusiasm has helped Bluder in her extraordinary career.

That passion has coursed through several of Bluder’s teams, helping her to 723 career victories, putting her 15th among active women’s basketball coaches. She also boasts the most wins for a coach at Iowa and has now taken her team to 13 NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 run in 2015.

Bluder’s enthusiasm isn’t always focused on winning; she is all about the success of her players off the court as well.

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“[Bluder] has always kept the women that she coaches as the central focus,” Jensen said. “It’s never been about her 700th win. It wasn’t about 200 or 300 or winning this conference tournament or winning Coach of the Year honor. She is really motivated by seeing her young women succeed.”

Her goal of helping to mold young players into successful women has been accomplished again and again. She has coached 86 Academic All-Big Ten members while also coaching women who have gone on to impressive careers.

Bluder also takes pride in the women she has coached who have gone on to help grow the sport of women’s basketball.

Women who have played under Bluder have gone on to do great things for the sport, whether that’s just playing in the WNBA, such as Sam Logic, who played for four years under Bluder, or helping pioneer a girl’s basketball program at Liberty High, such as Jaime Printy Brandt, another four-year Hawkeye under Bluder’s tutelage.

That passion she has for her team, not just as Hawkeye players, but also as individuals, is not lost on her current team.

“It’s amazing being able to be a part of this team and having Coach Bluder as our coach,” Megan Gustafson said. “She cares about us not just as basketball players but off the court, too, so to play for someone like that is really special.”

The years of dedication Bluder has put into helping young women succeed was recently recognized this year when she received the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union’s First Lady Award.

It’s a unique award, only given to 13 women in the 40 years of its existence. What makes it so special is that it isn’t an annual award, it is only given to women that the Athletic Union deems has had a significant effect on Iowa women.

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“That was really special, because it’s based on how you affected the girls in the state of Iowa,” Bluder said. “To me, that is the biggest honor that you can get. When you’re thought about as making an impact in other people’s lives — that’s what’s really exciting.”

Selflessness is a big reason for Bluder’s success, selflessness is evident in her coaching style. In a somewhat unusual scenario, Bluder’s main two coaches have been with her for the better part of two decades.

Those two coaches are Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald, both of whom also played under Bluder. Even though both could have found other jobs elsewhere, they have stuck with Bluder, and that’s thanks to her inclusive coaching style.

“I really love my role,” Jensen said. “I think if I was in a situation where I didn’t have a voice and all I did was carry a clipboard, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as a part of it. But Lisa has a great leadership style where everyone that works with her feels valued and feels like we have a voice.”

Bluder’s contagious fervor and inclusive coaching style has played a big part in keeping Jensen, but her style of ensuring all her coaches have a say also extends to her players; she wants to make sure everyone feels involved.

“One of our team values is everyone matters,” Bluder said. “So, making sure everyone feels a significant part of our team, whether you’re Megan or whether you’re a walk-on. I think everybody is important, and making everyone feel that way is something that we have to work on all the time as a staff and each individual on the team.”

The notion behind getting everybody involved generates a selfless team, something that was omnipresent in this year’s team.

That all starts in practice. While most teams and fans admire a flashy lay-up or long-range 3-pointer, these Hawkeyes celebrate the assist.

“We always like to say we like to celebrate the assist over the basket because everybody gets excited about that person, but if you didn’t have the great pass, you wouldn’t get that great basket,” Bluder said.

With that kind of attitude, it’s no wonder the Hawkeyes ranked third in the country in assists per game with 21.6.

The team’s unselfishness is not just present in the way they pass the ball on the court; it also reveals itself in the team continuing to demonstrate it off the court.

“Certainly, with Megan being an All-American, she could have the attitude, ‘It’s all about me,’ ” Bluder said. “But to me, this team is so unselfish. She credits her teammates first and foremost — all the time. Our team genuinely gets excited when she gets an award, our team genuinely gets excited when someone makes a great play, so it’s that camaraderie that makes this team really special.”

The enthusiasm Bluder has for selfless basketball can also be found in her love for the state of Iowa, which has housed organized women’s basketball since the 1920s. Obviously, the support of women’s basketball is something that means a lot to her.

“Watching girls grow up, and go to college, and have great college careers, and go and coach themselves, that’s really rewarding,” Bluder said. “It’s fun to see; that’s kind of Iowa through and through. It’s special to me; I will never coach in any other state, and I’m really glad I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend my entire career in this state.”

Interestingly enough, her entire basketball career, both as player and coach, has taken place in the Hawkeye State. Her journey has been full of various twists and turns, but she ended up with her “dream job.”

She’s been a Hawkeye for 18 years now, and she hopes to be able to retire at the UI.

Heading the Iowa basketball program might be Bluder’s dream job, but she has certainly also become the dream coach for Iowa and for many players who have had the opportunity to play under her tutelage.

On April 7, 2000, the Hawkeyes hoped they could hire a coach who would usher in a new era of on-court success. A team once searching for a captain for its ship found its leader in Bluder, who not only has turned this team into a perennial NCAA Tournament contender but a program that is a pillar of integrity.

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