It took a little less than 14 years for Lisa Bluder to win more games at Iowa than any other coach in program history.
Bluder added that achievement to her already sterling list of career accomplishments Monday when Iowa defeated Northwestern 90-84 giving Bluder her 270th career win at Iowa, surpassing Vivian Stringer for the most wins in Hawkeye history.
It’s been nearly 14 years since Bluder started the journey toward her latest career milestone by standing in the press room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena as she was announced as the new head coach at Iowa.
In reality, Bluder’s path to become the winningest coach in Iowa basketball history began well before she set foot in Iowa City.
Before she coached in a huge arena and boarded flights to road games, Bluder mopped floors, washed uniforms and drove vans on road trips as a first-year head coach at NAIA St. Ambrose University.
“I loved the game, I missed the game, and I wanted to be involved in it,” Bluder said. “I went for (the St. Ambrose job) for the joy of coaching, for the joy of being around the game.”
Bluder’s first coaching job almost never came.
After her playing career ended at Northern Iowa, Bluder used her business degree to secure a job at an advertising company.
The only problem was she missed basketball.
Bluder sent letters to three schools in the Davenport area where her now-husband, David, was working, inquiring about possible graduate assistant positions.
She never heard back.
“Not only did I hear no, I heard nothing; I didn’t even get a rejection letter from them,” Bluder said. “That’s how little they wanted me, they couldn’t even send me a rejection letter.”
Bluder eventually heard something about a job at St. Ambrose — although not exactly directly.
A neighbor spotted an ad in the newspaper for a women’s basketball coach at St. Ambrose. Bluder applied and was hired in mid-August for the upcoming season.
“I got my first job in coaching from an ad in the paper found by a 90-year-old woman,” Bluder said.
The job at St. Ambrose was exactly what Bluder was looking for, a chance to get back into basketball.
The hours were long and the pay wasn’t much — $2,400 was the annual salary, though Bluder negotiated her way to $2,500 — but it gave Bluder a chance to coach.
“You do a lot of different things at an NAIA school just to stay coaching,” Bluder said. “I learned so much from being at St. Ambrose because you do so many different things. I hired officials, I scheduled the facilities, I took care of all the student workers. But you learn a lot from doing all those different things and that was a great apprenticeship for me, so I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Bluder did everything from running the concession stand to selling homecoming T-shirts to raise funds for her team at St. Ambrose, but what she mostly did during her time leading the Fighting Bees was win.
After winning 18 games in her first season as head coach and 20 the next year, Bluder went 131-11 in her final four seasons at St. Ambrose.
Bluder led the Bees went to four straight NAIA national tournaments and reached the final four in 1989 and 1990.
Bluder’s 1990 team was ranked No. 1 in the country and finished the season 34-1.
That kind of success didn’t go unnoticed.
Bluder was hired at Drake before the 1990-1991 season, starting a new chapter of her career at the Division 1 level.
“I had people that I played against that were playing at St. Ambrose, so I followed them and their success. Lisa Bluder was putting them on the map as the number one team in the country and you can’t help but follow all of that,” Iowa assistant coach Jenni Fitzgerald said. “When she got the job at Drake, you just felt like she was going to do great things.”
Bluder did at Drake what she had done at St. Ambrose: turning the program into a consistent winner.
After going 24-32 in her first two seasons leading the Bulldogs, Bluder notched eight consecutive winning seasons and four NCAA tournament appearances at Drake.
Fitzgerald and Jan Jensen joined Bluder’s staff at Drake after playing for the Bulldogs and have been with her since.
That consistency on and off the court made the decision for Jensen and Fitzgerald to follow Bluder to Iowa an easy one.
“The blueprint that Lisa has always laid out is really very, very great,” Jensen said. “It goes beyond the championships, and that is why I’m so excited that she has had this degree of success at St. Ambrose, at Drake and here.”
Consistency had been a trademark of Bluder in her career.
On the court, Bluder has had a winning record in 27 of her 30 seasons as a head coach and won more than 18 games 22 times.
However, it is what Bluder has done away from the court that have kept Fitzgerald and Jensen on her coaching staff for more than 20 seasons.
“You get to wake up every day and go to work with your best friends, you still get to compete, and I just really feel fortunate that I get to do all that I do with who I get to do it with,” Jensen said. “I think that is how she has retained us. She is just a good person and you feel every bit a part of those 269 and counting wins.”
Bluder hasn’t just continued her success at Iowa, she’s grown it.
In her 14 seasons at Iowa, Bluder has had just one losing season.
Under Bluder, the Hawkeyes have won a Big Ten tournament title, a share of a Big Ten regular season title and are one of just 13 schools to reach the NCAA tournament six straight seasons.
Those close to the program agree all the success and all the wins haven’t changed the way Bluder does business.
“She never big times anyone,” Jensen said. “She’ll go get the mop still if someone spills water; she’ll walk and get a towel and wipe it up. She just does it. If it needs to be done, she does it, and I think that respect that she has for others is so reciprocated.”
It’s been 30 years since Bluder answered the newspaper ad for a chance to stay close to the game.
Thirty seasons at three different schools and more than 620 wins since Bluder became the head coach at St. Ambrose, but it’s the same things that made her successful at the NAIA level that have led to her success in the Big Ten.
“Something that I have noticed over the last 30 years is for those people who love what they do, they just have great passion for the game,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “Lisa is a great example, starting at a small school and working her way up. She loves working with the women, she loves coaching. It’s all she’s done. It’s really her whole life. You know with her that you are getting someone that cares deeply.”
Bluder passed Vivian Stringer’s mark of 269 career wins Monday, ironically passing a coach that inspired Bluder to pursue coaching in the first place.
As a young coach, Bluder worked at Stringer’s camps at Iowa and watched practice tapes of Stringer’s Iowa’s teams, soaking up all the knowledge she could from what would turn out to be the coach whose record she surpassed.
“I’m just grateful because Vivian started this program in the right direction,” Bluder said. “If it wasn’t for her, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the program that it is today.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball