Iowan Lisa Bluder made winning career choice, joins Register Hall
IOWA CITY, Ia. — One of the most storied coaching careers in Iowa’s history began with a newspaper want ad, a hasty typewritten resume, and a 23-year-old’s naïve ambition.
Lisa Bluder was one year removed from a terrific basketball career at Northern Iowa, in an era when there were no professional playing options for women. Bored with her job creating advertisements and recently relocated to a new city with her fiancé, she decided to take a stab at teaching the sport she’d loved since her Marion childhood.
Bluder’s original resume was sparse, including only her time as a player, some instruction she’d provided at summer clinics and a handful of games she’d refereed at Hawkeye Tech in Waterloo.
That resume today shows 679 victories, starting with that initial job at St. Ambrose University in Davenport in 1984, through a decade at Drake and the past 16 years at Iowa. Bluder ranks 31st all-time in victories among college women’s basketball coaches, all without having to move outside of her beloved home state. Her accomplishments have earned her a place in the Des Moines Sunday Register Iowa Sports Hall of Fame, the 223rd inductee.
“I worked hard and I did it for the love of the job and not for money or prestige or anything else. I got paid nothing. No one was flocking to our games and it wasn’t front-page news,” Bluder said of her coaching initiation at St. Ambrose, an NAIA school.
“It was funny because my husband (David) and I said, ‘Well, let’s do it for one year and give it a try.’ Here we are 32 years later.”
From Linn-Mar to UNI
Bluder, then Lisa Geske, played four seasons of six-on-six basketball at Linn-Mar High School. It was after her freshman year that her horizons widened.
That is when Sue Kudrna arrived as an assistant coach, just after being named an all-American player at William Penn College. It was Kudrna, Bluder said, who opened her eyes to the possibility of playing basketball in college at a time when Title IX was in its infancy and the NCAA didn’t yet sanction that sport.
“I do think that’s where it all started,” Bluder said. “I hadn’t really thought about playing in college. I was one of the first scholarship classes at UNI for women’s basketball and I got half a scholarship ($1,100 a year). I was thrilled to get that.”
Bluder was a dependable wing player for the Panthers, with an effective jump shot from 15 to 17 feet. She was a ferocious rebounder whose 19 boards against Illinois-Chicago still are the second-most in a single game in program history.
But when she graduated in 1983, she feared that part of her life was in the past. In 1984, she accepted David’s marriage proposal and got ready to move to Davenport. She intended to get a master’s degree, but also became determined to give coaching a try. A neighbor spotted a want ad in the paper for the St. Ambrose job, and Bluder applied and was quickly hired. She and David married in September and Bluder immediately threw herself into this new career.
She discovered she was a natural.
Bluder’s first two seasons produced a 38-25 record. Then she really took off, taking the Queen Bees to four consecutive national tournaments and two Final Fours. Her final team finished 34-1, losing in the national semifinals, and netted her national NAIA coach of the year honors. Along the way, she defeated her alma mater and won the nationally televised National Catholic Basketball Tournament.
From St. Ambrose to Drake
But Bluder was hankering to find a bigger stage in a sport where the talent was starting to gather at universities larger than St. Ambrose. She was in attendance at the 1990 Final Four, a reward that came with her coach of the year trophy, and found herself sitting directly behind a woman who was on the search committee charged with hiring a new coach at Drake. She encouraged Bluder to apply. Bluder had spoken with Marquette about its opening the previous day, but was excited by the chance to stay in Iowa.
She interviewed for the Bulldogs job on her 29th birthday, certainly a good omen. By the time of the Drake Relays in late April, Bluder was on board.
This time, success was a little slower in coming. But by her fifth season at Drake, Bluder had the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the second round in 1995 with a victory over Mississippi. Drake returned to the tournament three more times under Bluder, but again she was starting to set her sights higher.
Bluder interviewed for the Iowa job in 1995 when the legendary C. Vivian Stringer left for Rutgers, but the university hired Stringer assistant Angie Lee. Bluder took a look at the Missouri coaching position in 1997, but didn’t feel a connection there.
When Lee resigned in 2000, Bluder got another chance to take the helm in Iowa City, and it has proved to be a perfect union.
“We were starting at Drake to lose some really good recruits to bigger schools. And we were beating the bigger schools,” Bluder said. “I felt like there was starting to be a movement from mid-major to BCS. Before that, I felt like it was all a level playing field. I felt like at a school like Iowa you could advance farther. To me, Iowa was always the dream school. This was the epitome, right? This was the crown jewel.”
A memorable Hawkeye debut
Bluder brought with her to Iowa two assistants she hired at Drake that have been constants in her coaching life. Former Bulldog stars Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald have been at Bluder’s side for 23 seasons, unheard-of continuity on a major-college coaching staff.
But it was a frosty situation they stepped into at Iowa, and Bluder sensed it from the second she was announced as the Hawkeyes’ coach, taking the stage with 3-year-old daughter Hannah in her lap while nine months pregnant with daughter Emma (a son, David, arrived two years later). Bluder’s new players observed quietly, still loyal to Lee and not excited about a regime change.
“They sat in the back and they had their arms crossed,” Bluder said. “The body language wasn’t the best.”
Among the players on Bluder’s first Iowa team was freshman Jennie (Lillis) Baranczyk, destined to become one of the program’s best ever. Expectations were low for that Hawkeye team, which had won just nine games the previous season.
Bluder’s Iowa coaching debut came Nov. 17, 2000, a home game against Marquette. The Hawkeyes won 70-57.
“In the locker room, you would have thought we’d won the conference championship right then and there,” Baranczyk recalled. “I think (Bluder) was like, ‘We can’t be this excited about one win.’ … About halfway through the season, she got us.”
Iowa preceded to win that conference championship, rolling through the Big Ten behind Baranczyk, Lindsey Meder and Cara Consuegra. Bluder’s eyes still sparkle at the memory.
“We didn’t instantly expect to be their friends or to have this great working relationship. I think we nurtured it over time. I don’t think they really completely bought in until almost the start of the Big Ten season,” Bluder said. “And then once they did, it was almost magical. I didn’t think it was going to turn around that quickly.”
Baranczyk, now the coach at Drake, credited Bluder for giving her players plenty of trust.
“I remember being in huddles and timeouts and being able to give my opinion of what I thought was going on or what I felt, and she allowed that to happen. I’ve now found out that’s not as common with all coaches,” Baranczyk said. “She teaches offenses where (players) have to make the reads and really understand the game, which I liked.
“She’s very Iowa. She just is. And I like that. She’s humble, she’s competitive, she’s ‘roll up your sleeves.’”
A legacy in progress
Bluder’s Iowa teams have reached the NCAA Tournament in 12 of 16 seasons. The 2015 squad, featuring all-American Samantha Logic, reached the Sweet 16, a first for the Hawkeyes since 1996. Bluder has a record of 323-188 at Iowa. No Hawkeye coach in any sport has ever won more games.
This year’s Hawkeyes will be led by senior Ally Disterhoft, an Iowa City native who grew up attending Bluder’s summer camps and sees a lot of herself in her coach.
“We just get after it. There’s something that fuels us about the game. I’m a very passionate player. I think she’s a very passionate coach,” Disterhoft said. “She’s not one to sit back and let the game happen. She’s involved.”
So Disterhoft — a top-notch student with “a future on Wall Street,” according to Bluder — felt some trepidation this year when she contemplated taking a prestigious summer internship at Price Waterhouse Cooper in Chicago. It would mean missing the first half of summer workouts. Privately, Disterhoft wondered if her coach would think that was OK.
“Ally, I’m making this decision for you. You’re going,” Bluder told Disterhoft.
“I was struggling with it,” Disterhoft said. “That really spoke, I think, to her character.”
Baranczyk said Bluder has been a great role model for her, and not just when it comes to coaching strategy.
“She’s very balanced. She has a family. And there’s not a lot of people who have those two things in our business that find a lot of success,” said Baranczyk, who is married with two young children. “That’s been a real good example to me.”
Bluder credits her husband, David, for long ago giving up his career to stay at home with their children. That has enabled her to pursue such a demanding profession without worry of how it will impact their three teenagers.
“It takes a special partner to let you do this successfully. Because it’s emotionally draining to do this,” Bluder said. “You have 15 other kids here that you’re caring for. People say to me, ‘How are your kids?’ and I really don’t know which ones they’re talking about, my team kids or my kids at home.
“He allowed me to do this. Without him, I never would have taken that first job at St. Ambrose.”
Bluder is hesitant to address her legacy, not at age 55 with another decade or more of coaching ahead of her. But she came face to face with it this summer on a flight to Chicago. Also on board were former players of hers from St. Ambrose, Drake and Iowa, a delightfully odd convergence of her past. She had time to chat with each.
“I really consider myself lucky because in 32 years I’ve only been at three places, and all in the state of Iowa. What are the chances of that? Nobody has a career like that. You always have to hop from place to place and maybe go to places you really don’t want to be,” Bluder said.
“I hope that my legacy will be that of a winner, but also that we developed young women. We made young women stronger or think about things differently as women to just not accept what’s given you, but go for it. I hope that women understand when they leave here that they can go for it, that they can do anything.”
Bluder is living proof. She went for it at age 23. She’s going for it still.