College athletic directors tend to change coaches these days almost as often as they change their socks.
That’s why it’s fun to watch how the perennial survivors operate, coaches such as Lisa Bluder from Iowa, the dean of all women’s basketball coaches in the Big Ten.
Since Bluder arrived in Iowa City just ahead of the 2000-01 season, a total of 30 coaches between the other 11 Big Ten schools have come and, in many cases, have gone.
Indiana and Michigan have been under the guidance of four coaches apiece over the course of Bluder’s tenure. Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin are at three coaches each. Other teams in the league have changed coaches at least once.
All the while, Bluder has stayed the course, winning plenty of games and a Big Ten title (2008) along the way.
Now in her 13th season at Iowa and her 29th overall as a college head coach, Bluder hit a major milestone on Sunday. She got her 600th career win when her Hawkeyes upset No. 11 Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The victory moved Iowa to an impressive 5-0 this season against nationally ranked teams and made Bluder just the 25th Division I head coach to reach the 600-win milestone.
“All I know is that 600 is one more than 599,” Bluder told me with a laugh after the game. “Any time you hit a milestone like this, it gives you time to reflect on all the kids you’ve coached. I haven’t put in one basket or gotten one rebound in those 600 victories. Obviously, I’ve had some unbelievable women that I’ve been able to coach.”
Bluder, who started at St. Ambrose in 1984 at age 24, and moved to Drake for 10 years before landing at Iowa, made sure to mention the loyalty of her husband David, who has seen every victory as well as every loss. She emphasized the dedication assistant coaches Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald, who have been with her for 21 years.
“They’ve been here longer as a part of this staff than with their own families. They were with their own families for only 18 years,” Bluder said of Jensen and Fitzgerald. “They are every bit as important as I am in every one of those victories. That’s the real story.”
Typical Bluder. Low-key, humble and quick to credit others.
Her genuine disposition is what I’ve always loved about Bluder since meeting her during her rookie Big Ten season.
Bluder is refreshingly down to earth for a college coach, perhaps because she has no choice. Besides mothering her players, she is also the mother of three children, ages 8 to 13. She doesn’t have time to create facades or to be anyone but herself.
Players pick up on that vibe. They like a coach who is real and approachable and warm.
Bluder tells her players she has an open door and wants them to feel like they can tell her anything. She also says she feels responsible for teaching them moral and ethical values. That’s the mom in her again.
“Kids enjoy playing for her,” Jensen said. “That connection gets overlooked.”
Maybe not overlooked, maybe it’s simply Bluder’s little secret to success … or in other words, the way she’s avoided a trip to the sock hamper all these years.
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