Bluder always had a bigger picture in mind

IOWA’S LISA BLUDER AND JAN JENSEN are shown here coaching together during the regular season. (AP Photo)

She was a legendary coach long before landing a once-in-a-lifetime recruit. Yet to many, Lisa Bluder’s career will forever be defined by her time with Caitlin Clark — an era of Iowa Hawkeye women’s basketball filled with fame and fortune.

The 63-year-old Bluder announced her retirement on Monday. Some will say this is simply an opportunity for Bluder to ride off into the sunset on top, with Clark in the WNBA now and back-to-back national runner-up finishes in tow.

Truth be told, Bluder has earned every second of this decision. This true Iowan grinded her way through the coaching profession for 40 full years, taking over at tiny St. Ambrose College in Davenport months after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa.

After turning St. Ambrose into an NAIA powerhouse, the Marion native accepted the Drake University position in 1990. Bluder made the Bulldogs a force in the Missouri Valley Conference during her decade in Des Moines, then moved on to Iowa City and the Hawkeyes in 2000.

Bluder continued her winning ways at Iowa, as the team cleared the 20-victory hurdle in seven of eight seasons prior to Megan Gustafson’s arrival on campus in 2015. The relatively unheralded post from tiny Port Wing, Wisconsin then became a two-time All-American and the national player of the year, catapulting the Hawks into the mainstream conversation and helping set the stage for what will now be defined as Bluder’s final four-year act.

While it’s true a college coach is only as good as the players he or she recruits, the real story for me will always be player development under Bluder and long-time assistant Jan Jensen — now Bluder’s successor.

Gustafson didn’t arrive in Iowa City as a project, but she honed her craft and became a star under the tutelage of the Hawkeye coaching staff. Had that not happened, Clark may have never said yes to Bluder and Jensen — an upset of sorts, given Notre Dame was a heavy favorite and first love for the West Des Moines Dowling legend.

Clark was a different breed on the court from the start, without question. Her skills were advanced, her range was unlimited, and her court vision was otherworldly.

When it came to attitude, demeanor and persona, though, Clark was still very much a work in progress. Bluder and Jensen got Clark to understand the importance of her image and perception both on and off the court. She needed to be a more consistent and supportive teammate. She couldn’t just lead unilaterally. She had to embrace the complicated roles and responsibilities of being the face of women’s basketball, especially as her game soared to unprecedented heights.

The Caitlin Clark you see today is largely a product of Bluder’s guidance — not just as a basketball coach improving a player, but as a motherly figure helping one of her own grow up, figure it out and become an adult.

Bluder’s tenure will be simplified by the national media this week in the wake of her retirement announcement. They’ll say she was a good coach who had some great moments and then rode Clark’s coattails to new heights before walking away in the aftermath of her graduation.

In reality, Bluder helped to define a new era of women’s basketball — and athletics — in our state. She had an indelible impact on multiple Iowa communities — Marion, Cedar Falls, Davenport, Des Moines and Iowa City, among countless others — and spent decades advancing her determined narrative into a common belief: Women are strong, capable leaders who can change the world.

Lisa Bluder did just that. Caitlin Clark will next. And she’ll have her former coach to thank for the years of wisdom that ultimately makes her more than just a standout basketball player.

Contact Eric Pratt via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ByEricPratt


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