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Iowa’s Bluder: From $2,500 salary to hall of fame-caliber career

[ 0 ] March 22, 2014 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. – It’s the pause that Jan Jensen remembers — one of those moments when time seems suspended, frozen without warning, leaving a person suddenly unprepared for what’s going to happen next.

He did … what?

The thought raced through the head of Jensen, a first-year assistant coach for the Drake women’s basketball team, after a student manager blurted out a few cents worth of unsolicited advice to coach Lisa Bluder during a hurried halftime strategy session.

“You’ve only got about five minutes, so the time’s really valuable as you gather your thoughts before you go in to talk to the team,” Jensen said. “He said, ‘We’re showing a little too much on the screens.’ I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe he just interrupted the coach.’ What’s she going to do? I was nervous to say anything and I was an assistant coach.

“He stopped the flow of everything. She put up her hand and I’ll never forget what she said.”

For Bluder, the moment — and really, her response to it — defines the skeletal bones of a hall of fame-worthy coaching career. It provided a microcosm of her self-taught entrance to a game that began with a $2,500-per-season-job in 1984 at St. Ambrose University landed through a classified ad.

When No. 19 Iowa plays Marist on Sunday in a first-round NCAA Tournament game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Bluder — the former Country Kitchen waitress from Marion — will try to raise the bar higher as the winningest coach in Hawkeye history.

Bluder, the fourth-winningest women’s coach in Big Ten history, has collected more victories at Iowa (277) than anyone — more than Vivian Stringer, more than Tom Davis, more than Lute Olson, more than Ralph Miller.

Jensen, though, remembers the pause.

The snapshot in a quiet hallway illuminated a path mapped through warmth, support and patience — rather than bluster and broken clipboards.

“She put her hand up and said, ‘I’m going to think about that. Thank you,’” Jensen said. “She did not belittle him or make him feel out of line. She made him feel valued, she made him feel involved. I asked her later if she was upset by that and she said, ‘The time I think I’m too good to listen to someone’s opinion, I really need to sit down and evaluate things.’

“What a great lesson for a young coach.”

A career begins on $2,500, hope

The dominoes that led to Bluder becoming a coach involved pancakes, collectible dolls, an attentive newspaper reader and a life-altering dash of “why not?”

When the parents of Chicago kid David Bluder bought a Country Kitchen restaurant in Marion, the family had barely settled into Iowa when his mother “had picked out my next girlfriend.” The local girl, scrambling to take orders, was cute, funny, hard-working. The girl noticed something, too.

“I was actually thinking about quitting,” Lisa Bluder said. “Then all of a sudden the new owner’s son walked in and I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I’ll work a little longer.’ So I don’t know if the mom worked me or I worked the mom. I’m not sure which way that went.”

David attended Northern Iowa and, a year later, the athletic waitress followed — focused on playing basketball at a time when it sometimes felt less than celebrated.

“In the ’70s, it wasn’t cool to be a girl and be out for sports. You were the odd duck a little bit,” said Bluder, who tried to do it all — basketball, volleyball, softball, tennis and track. “If you were a small-town player, those kids were kind of glamorized. But in a bigger city, it was different.”

In 1984, the couple became engaged as David worked at Davenport Bank and Trust. Lisa used her marketing degree in the Waterloo area and considered becoming a photographer or a teacher, but the thought of staying involved with basketball tugged at her constantly.

She wrote letters to Quad Cities-area college programs St. Ambrose, Augustana and Marycrest, but the silence sounded deafening.

“Not even a rejection letter,” Bluder said.

David, meanwhile, had gotten to know an elderly, never-been-married neighbor named Dorothy. She collected dolls, bringing them to her home from as far away as Europe. David, who found her interesting and lacking companionship, befriended her. Lisa did, too.

One day, Dorothy noticed a classified ad in the Quad-City Times newspaper: St. Ambrose, a university Bluder unsuccessfully chased before, needed a women’s basketball coach. Lisa, who had just returned from officiating games in Waterloo, shook her head when David mentioned it.

“I’ve got no shot,” Lisa told him. “I don’t have any experience.”

Then, in a moment of blind faith and support, an incredible basketball coaching career began — almost on a lark.

“Why not?” David said. “You’ve got to go for it.”

Lisa stayed up until 1 a.m., hunting and pecking on a manual typewriter to bang out the letter outlining her interest. The young couple was shocked when St. Ambrose scheduled an interview. One day, as David worked at the bank, he got a call.

“She said, ‘I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘The good news, they offered me the job.’ What’s the bad news, I said. ‘It pays $2,400 per year.’

“She wasn’t going to take it. She said we couldn’t live on that.”

Again, David pushed her to give the game and the life she envisioned a chance. As St. Ambrose and its new coach worked to finalize the details of Bluder’s first basketball contract, she successfully lobbied for a raise — of $100.

“I felt great at the time. You kidding?” she said. “An extra $100, that was big. I used to joke about that with (former Iowa athletic director Bob) Bowlsby, that that’s where I got my negotiating skills.”

Lisa Bluder had never coached a game. Never worked as an assistant coach. Never operated a practice. Never drawn up a game plan.

St. Ambrose finished 18-13.

Winning spurs job offers and ‘the’ offer

St. Ambrose blossomed into an NAIA power under Bluder, winning a stunning 82.4 percent of its games as she led the program to the Final Four in consecutive seasons.

Bluder’s unconventional route — starting as a head coach, without working through the ranks — meant she lacked the training and mentoring most coaches soak up along the way. The Bluders began crisscrossing the Midwest, attending clinics in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.

At one clinic, towel-chomping coach Jerry Tarkanian would explain pressure defense. At another, Al McGuire would break down the nuances of 2-3 zones on a hazy projector screen. Joe B. Hall would outline fast breaks. Denny Crum would talk about shooting technique before selling you his book.

Lisa Bluder absorbed all of it.

“It doesn’t happen like that anymore,” David Bluder said. “She’s kind of developed her own model of coaching. It’s fascinating.”

As the wins piled up, Bluder drew the interest of Drake University, which hired her for the 1990-91 season. The Bulldogs had played in the NCAA Tournament three times in program history. Under Bluder, they played in four, including three during a four-season stretch.

Larger colleges began to consistently pursue one of the hottest coaches in the country.

“She was offered dozens of jobs. She was offered the Purdue job, the Minnesota job, the Illinois job, the Iowa State job, Baylor, Auburn, California,” David Bluder said. “Every year there’d be two or three.”

No situation seemed to fit.

“Other schools that called, ‘Well, I can’t really see myself at California’ ‘I really can’t see myself at Baylor,’” said Bluder, who turns 53 next month. “The one we were probably most serious about was Missouri. We flew down there, but Gov. (Bob) Ray was the interim president at Drake and he kind of convinced me to stay at Drake.

“He knew Iowa was in the back of my mind, though. So when the job came open, he (Ray) was somebody who called on my behalf.”

The moment arrived in 2000, when Iowa announced that Bluder would be its new coach.

What followed was more of the winning that happened at St. Ambrose and Drake. Iowa qualified for the NCAA Tournament in her first two seasons and the Hawkeyes’ current run of seven consecutive trips — a streak just 13 other programs in the nation can claim — is the Big Ten’s best.

Bluder shakes her head when asked about passing up Vivian Stringer and Tom Davis this season as the winningest coach in program history.

“It’s a little surreal,” she said.

Bluder sits outside the top three in terms of Big Ten coaching money with $545,000 in guaranteed pay, according to contracts obtained by USA Today Sports in conjunction with Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center.

When asked if she’d consider another job — from a national power like Stanford or UConn — Bluder responds without hesitation.

“No,” she said. “So many people want that better job. To me, there is no better job. This is the better job.”

Bluder proves coach-mom roles can work

The reason Lisa Bluder is relatable in ways that differ from many coaches in high-dollar, major-college athletics is that she comes off as a regular person to others.

She has strolled into the arena dressed up as the woman from the Progressive Insurance ads on Halloween. She has put on a pair of thick-rimmed glasses at an I-Club event as the team prepared for a big game against Penn State. She danced down the stairs “Gangnam Style” in front of 6,000 fans, sunglasses and all, at last season’s Black and Gold Blowout.

Moments after her Gangnam Style routine, she received a text from her daughter Hannah, who was attending a football game in Solon: “Whatever you’re doing mom, stop it — now.”

Jensen and assistant coach Jenni Fitzgerald have stayed with Bluder for 22 seasons, passing up other jobs because of the love of the one they’ve already got. They attend the school events of the Bluders’ children and routinely hang out at each other’s homes.

“Lisa is exactly who you see. She really is a great person,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s kind, she’s generous, she’s fun, she’s a great mom, she’s a great role model — and I’m not saying that just because I’m working for her.

“She’s willing to listen, and not just the ‘I’m pretending to give you the time of day’ sort of thing.

Lisa Bluder has more wins than any Iowa basketball coach, men's or women's.

Lisa Bluder has more wins than any Iowa basketball coach, men’s or women’s.

“There was that show, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ I teased her … ‘Everybody loves Lisa’ … like the brother on the show used to say it. But it’s true.”

On a recent visit to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Bluder buzzes through the entryway to the women’s basketball office because she promised to make a 10-minute break in preparations for Marist to rebound for Hannah.

Later, Bluder hangs out in her conference room with David Jr.

Hannah swings by the office one more time: “Love you.” Bluder shoots back: “Love you, bud.”

When the press conference in Iowa City announced that Bluder would be the Hawkeyes’ new coach, she ambled to the table eight-months pregnant with her middle daughter, Emma. Bluder, the self-taught coach, trail-blazed off the court as well — breaking the unspoken rule that families were too time-consuming to be options for the most successful national coaches.

“To see a very highly successful basketball coach with a family — in a field where very few have kids — was inspiring,” said Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk, who played under Bluder at Iowa as Jennie Lillis and was pregnant with her first child when hired in 2012. “Most other top coaches, they just don’t. You could see it was possible.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ You don’t have to give up one for the other.”

ESPN.com women’s basketball reporter Mechelle Voepel said Bluder’s relationships stretch and are strengthened beyond her own living room.

“When you talk to her former players, you’re struck by how much they enjoy their time at Iowa and how much they respect her,” Voepel said. “She’s somebody who helped them grow as people as much as basketball players. That’s a big thing to me, because so much, we tend to just look at numbers. There’s so much more to being a coach than that, and there’s so much lasting impact that coaches can make on people’s lives.

“I think she’s a genuine teacher of the game — and that really gets overused. In her case, I think it’s very appropriate. You can see players at Iowa maximize their potential.

“She’s warm — a very typical, friendly Iowan. I also think she’s somebody, on the court, who’s going to fight for the team. But she doesn’t show up officials.”

The combination of winning without ego or ranting excess made Voepel do a double-take in the championship of this season’s Big Ten Tournament when Bluder was tagged with a technical foul.

“I remember thinking, ‘If Lisa Bluder gets a technical for this, then this officiating crew’s response to most other coaches would be deportation or something,’” Voepel joked.

Managing game in unique way

When told that both Jensen and Fitzgerald told the story of the manager at Drake interrupting the coach at halftime all those years ago, Bluder shrugged.

That was no know-your-place moment, she said. Because in Bluder’s world, everyone has a place.

“It didn’t bother me,” she said. “I think some people have an ego where it would have bothered them. I thought, ‘Well the kid’s trying. He’s got an idea and it might be the right idea.’”

Last season, a manager at Iowa suggested a play the team should consider.

“We put it in and we named it after him,” she said.

Why, Bluder was asked?

“Why not?”

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

At the buzzer: Iowa’s Lisa Bluder

Queen of the Stairs: Iowa assistant coaches Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald joke about being challenged by coach Lisa Bluder to race down the stairs at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Bluder admits to the competition — and her competence.

“If it was an Olympic sport, I could win a gold medal,” Bluder said. “I can maneuver stairs like no other — but down, not up. I grew up in a two-story house, so I was always running up and down the stairs. I was always in a hurry, too.”

Mining for a coaching edge: Bluder brought hall of fame women’s coaches Marsha Sharp (Texas Tech) and Joe Ciampi (Auburn) to Iowa City after they retired to pick their brains for a couple of days. Ciampi recorded 607 victories, while Sharp finished with 572.

Bluder has surpassed both, with 633 in 30 seasons.

Coach succumbs to pop culture: On a roadtrip Bluder asked for something to read and Fitzgerald offered a copy of “Entertainment Weekly” magazine. Bluder turned down the offer with a high-minded, “I would no more read that magazine…”

Fitzgerald laughs now that Bluder has become an avid fan of the TV show “The Bachelor.”

“That’s probably my biggest vice,” Bluder said. “I still won’t read those magazines, but I started watching the show with my daughters, so it’s something we’re doing together. But yeah, I’m in pretty deep the last three years. It’s gotten me. I’m hooked.”

Sunday’s game: Marist (27-6) at Iowa (26-8), 7 p.m. at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (ESPN2)

Bryce Miller

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