Leistikow: Iowa's Jan Jensen confronts life's highs, lows at NCAA Tournament

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

(Note from the author: On Sunday morning, Dale Jensen died at age 86. Family members were able to read Dale the story below, which was published online Thursday and in Friday's Des Moines Register print editions, before he passed away. He was also aware that the Iowa women's basketball team beat Colorado on Friday night to reach the Elite Eight. Jan Jensen was set to coach in Sunday's 8 p.m. CT game vs. Louisville at Climate Pledge Arena.)

SEATTLE − Jan Jensen sure could put a basketball through a hoop in her heyday. She racked up a national-best 66 points per game as a 6-on-6 senior in high school, but she wasn’t just a small-town Iowa star. By the time she was a senior at Drake, playing for coach Lisa Bluder, she was putting up a Division I-best 29.6 points per game. Even Caitlin Clark, the generational superstar she now helps coach, has yet to match that clip at the college level.

But Jensen’s gifts as a player pale in comparison to what is undoubtedly her greatest quality: a kindness and love toward others. That’s not up for debate, those who know her will assure you. And when she reads that sentence, the 23-year Iowa women’s basketball assistant coach will probably roll her eyes and try to convince someone it’s not true. That would showcase another of Jensen's signature qualities, a humility to say that she is as flawed as anyone else.

Jensen wants little to no credit for anything attached to her name, and that includes this week being named the 2023 Division I national assistant coach of the year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. A well-deserved honor, but one she unsurprisingly deflects. Jensen was the post coach and primary developer of 2019 national player of the year Megan Gustafson, and has done the same at Iowa with current senior Monika Czinano, a four-time first-team all-Big Ten center whose stat line in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament win against Georgia was an homage to Jensen’s teaching of efficient post play – 20 points, nine rebounds, zero dribbles. The Hawkeyes play Colorado at 6:30 p.m. CT Friday in the Sweet 16 at Seattle.

Honored:Iowa's Jan Jensen named WBCA's D-I Assistant Coach of the Year

Of course, Jensen will say those players deserve the credit. They did the work, not her.

Where does such a genuine humility combined with a work ethic that pours so positively into college basketball players come from?

Take a three-hour ride on Interstate 80 west from Iowa City to her hometown of Kimballton (population 287), and it's easier to understand. Amid the excitement of a history-making Iowa women’s basketball season, Jensen has been making that drive a lot lately.

Because her 86-year-old father, a “typical, tough old farmer” as Jensen says, is dying.

But he’s not done fighting yet.

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Long drives, big-picture thoughts for Iowa women's basketball assistant coach Jan Jensen

About a year ago, Dale Jensen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He toughed out a difficult surgery and endured chemotherapy and seemed to turn a corner until a new spot of cancer showed up on his lung a few months ago. At his age and condition, doctors said his body wouldn’t be able to handle more chemo. There is no survivable path forward.

Every week, even as the stakes continue to grow for the nationally top-5 Hawkeyes, Jensen finds a day in her intense coaching schedule to return home. She jokes that she’s not so young herself anymore. But she channels her early years as a recruiter, when all-day trips were a piece of cake.

She helps Dad with his finances and talks about the latest Hawkeye game. They’ll watch some sports or a Western movie together.

Jan Jensen, associate head coach of the Iowa women's basketball team, is shown with her father, Dale, at a healthier time. He is now in hospice care in their hometown of Kimballton.

“I’m not doing anything spectacular here,” she says, “other than loving my dad.”

Jensen is grateful to come from a loving home in rural Iowa. Mom Yvonne was musically inclined; she played “six or seven instruments,” Jensen says, including the organ at their church for 40 years. Out of support for her daughter, Yvonne grew to love sports. Jensen saw her parents put others first without seeking credit for doing so.

“When people are down and out,” Jensen says, “they would help.”

When Jensen thinks about her father, one image vividly comes to mind. She would watch him fill two five-gallon buckets with corn, then carry one with each hand and jog – not walk – to go feed their livestock.

She absorbed how to be purposeful with every moment and efficient with her time – maybe akin to a power forward receiving a post-entry pass and, without wasting a dribble, turning to score two points.

“I may not know much in this world, but I know how to work,” Jensen says. “And that’s all because of how he lived his life on the farm.”

Hospice care was called in for Dale in the days following Iowa's thrilling, season-ending home win against second-ranked Indiana on Clark's 3-point heave at the buzzer. Jan was grateful her father could watch on TV the following week as the Hawkeyes cut down the nets at the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis, after posting three wins in three days.

Jan Jensen, right, has been a fixture for post players like Monika Czinano during her 23 years at Iowa.

But now for the third time, she’s dealing with a loved one’s abrupt health downturn amid a high point of an Iowa basketball season.

Back in 2015, shortly after the Samantha Logic-led Hawkeyes reached their first Sweet 16 under Bluder, her mom – “my biggest fan,” Jensen says – caught pneumonia. Within a week, she passed away.

Flash forward to 2020, the season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and saw Iowa's Kathleen Doyle be named Big Ten player of the year. A day after a big February road win at Purdue, Jensen received a call from home that her only brother, Doug, and her “second-biggest fan,” died suddenly after a heart attack.

More:How to watch, stream and listen to Iowa women's basketball in the Sweet 16 vs. Colorado

And now, Jensen finds herself staring through a windshield in her Toyota Highlander on these early morning and late night drives, not knowing when her father will take his final breath … but knowing there aren’t many left.

“I think life just always throws a lot at you,” Jensen says. “As I’ve grown in my spiritual life, there are just seasons of life.

“Sometimes it’s sunny and beautiful and other times it just rains cats and dogs. I’m just thankful for my (Christian) faith, because you weather all the seasons. And you can see the good in them all. When they hit so hard together … it’s just keeping balance and knowing that God has His hand in all of that.”

Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen, left, speaks with head coach Lisa Bluder during a Dec. 21, 2022 game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Jensen is credited with the development of Hawkeye star post players Megan Gustafson (2015-19) and Monika Czinano (senior on this year's Iowa team).

Jensen was able to call Dad on Tuesday and inform him of her coach-of-the-year award. In a weak voice, he asked something to the effect of, “Of the whole nation?” What a proud moment that had to be.

Still, Jensen says she’s like a duck that may look fine on top of the water but underneath she’s paddling like crazy. Her spouse, Julie Fitzpatrick, remains impressed with how her partner of 25 years (they've been legally married for 13) is handling the situation.

“Jan is experiencing the highest of the highs and the lowest of lows right now,” Fitzpatrick says. “She is so grateful for this moment in time while also navigating the emotions that go with supporting her dad.

"I worry about her pushing too hard sometimes, but I also know that is who she is, and she will do whatever she can to be present whenever she can."

Iowa coaches, Lisa Bluder 'always got my back,' when it comes to family, even during NCAA Tournament

Despite a lack of sleep, Jensen has remained healthy and strong while navigating both worlds. She credits her prayer life for that sustained energy, because she can’t explain where it comes from otherwise. (She does some of her best scouting work late at night, when the house is quiet and the kids, Jack and Janie, are asleep.)

During this challenging time, Jensen has been thinking about Iowa player Sharon Goodman, who lost her mom to cancer in high school.

She’s been thinking about Iowa recruit Ava Jones, who was in a coma for a week in July and suffered major back and leg injuries while tragically losing her father when her family was struck by a car operated by an allegedly intoxicated driver.

Her mind also goes to her niece, Ashley, who adjusted her life to take over her late father Doug’s bar (called "Lugger's") in Kimballton and is dealing with the loss while recently welcoming a newborn into the world.

She thinks about her older sister, Melodi, who has been by Dale's side since the cancer diagnosis and all the family and friends in Kimballton who have helped.

Her heart goes out to Lisa Brinkmeyer VanDeventer, her former player and now dear friend who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer.

Jan Jensen, right, is shown with her mother, Yvonne, who passed away suddenly after Iowa's Sweet 16 run in 2015.

She is grateful for Bluder and the other coaches at Iowa, who stress family first even in this high-stakes time for the basketball team.

To illustrate that, Jensen tells a funny story about a recent trip to Kimballton. The Monday after that regular season-ending Indiana win, she hustled home to see Dad. In her mind, Jensen didn’t think Iowa practiced again until Wednesday. A post-midnight text sent to the coaches (that’s about the only time of day she gets cell-phone service back home) stated that she intended to stay overnight but would be back in time for practice on Wednesday.

Even though Bluder knew Jensen had mixed up the dates, she replied simply: “Sounds good, thanks!”

On the drive home, it dawned on Jensen that Iowa actually was practicing Tuesday. In that moment, Jensen was a tad embarrassed but mostly felt grateful for the support from Bluder – who understood that Jensen spending extra moments with her father and sorting out hospice arrangements outweighed the importance of NCAA Tournament preparations.

“They’ve always got my back,” Jensen says.

More:Iowa didn't play its best vs. Georgia — and that's a good thing as Hawkeyes ready for Sweet 16

'You don't want to say goodbye': Balancing a possible Final Four run, getting the most time left with her father

This week, on Monday, Jensen drove back to see Dad before the 2-seed Hawkeyes flew to Seattle on Wednesday ahead of Friday’s game against 6-seed Colorado. With a win Friday and again Sunday, Iowa would reach its first Final Four since 1993. It would be the first for Bluder, Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald, a trio that's been coaching together (at Drake, then Iowa) for 31 years.

While home, Jensen noted her father’s health had taken a sharp decline. He was weaker and low on energy.

“You’re trying to get one more visit,” she says, “but you don’t want to say goodbye. It’s like, ‘I’ll see you when we get back.’”

Iowa associate head coach Jan Jensen calls out instructions during a 2021 game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Jensen and head coach Lisa Bluder have worked together for 31 years.

She could see he’s fighting, though. Maybe he’ll hold on long enough to see Iowa win two games and reach next week’s Final Four in Dallas.

Maybe longer. Maybe not.

Jensen doesn’t want to lose her father, but she is at peace with everything. She is thankful that she’s been loved by her parents for this long, and that she was able to love them back.

“Everybody’s got something,” Jensen says. “The timing is a little bit unique. But honest to goodness, I got it. I don’t need a medal for it. It’s not anything else anyone wouldn’t be doing if you’re fortunate to be part of a loving family.”

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.