University of Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder is a true legend of the game. She holds the University of Iowa women’s basketball coaching record for most wins (379 and counting) that was previously held by one of her mentors, C. Vivian Stringer. Prior to coaching at Iowa, she had 169 wins at NAIA school St. Ambrose and 187 wins at Drake that adds up to a career total of 735 wins and a 67% winning percentage. Just as incredible, the born and bred Iowan achieved all of her coaching wins at colleges located in Iowa.
Coach Bluder was willing to share amazing insights on a variety of topics before a big border rivalry game against Minnesota in Minneapolis on January 14 that was nationally televised. It was the 78th meeting between the two teams and the first where both were ranked (Iowa No. 17, Minnesota No. 18).
Her passion and enthusiasm for the sport, her team, and individual players was very evident in our conversation.
On New Minnesota Coach Lindsay Whalen:
I remember the first year we came up here, it was her first year and my first year [as Iowa coach]; I was at Drake for 10 years before that, but the same first year [as Lindsay’s freshman season playing at Minnesota]. And I remember at Minnesota we didn’t even play in The Barn [unofficial name for Williams Arena]; we played in an auxiliary gym, so boy, they came a long way, right?
I remember Lindsay. They [previous Iowa coaches]recruited Lindsay at Iowa and she was just such an unbelievable point guard. Really heady, non-emotional, got the job done. To me, we had Sam Logic [2012–2015]; she was a [WNBA] first-round pick, and they kind of reminded me a little bit of each other. That’s the closest player I’ve had like Lindsay in all those areas, could fill up the stat sheet in so many different ways: points, assists, rebounds, and stuff that doesn’t show up on the stats: leadership, composure.
Thoughts On Senior Tania Davis:
She’s had back to back years of ACL [injuries], so has missed really two Big Ten seasons for the most part. She’s still trying to find her groove a little bit as a senior. She’s, I think, got the confidence to go back into the paint again where it happened both times. But I think it takes a while and you’ve missed two Big 10 seasons — that’s a lot and she’s a terrific player. I admire her so much for the way she’s been able to bounce back not only physically but mentally to come back. I just want her to have a great senior year because she deserves it.
Megan Gustafson having a great year and usually does great things against Minnesota:
Teams are kind of focusing on her to see if other people can hit things [shots]. Focusing on trying to get the ball out of her hands because when the ball’s in her hands, pretty good things usually happen. It might be an assist, something like drawing a foul, does not always mean scoring a basket, but something good usually happens.
Megan’s just having such a fabulous year and she’s had a fabulous three years quite honestly. She’s so consistent, she doesn’t have an off day, she doesn’t have a bad game, I shouldn’t jinx her [Spoiler alert, she didn’t!] but she doesn’t have a bad practice! I mean she just is the same every every day and that’s how you want your kids to be.
She’s just a great kid. She’s got a double major in the business school. A funny story about her; I have so many work ethic stories about Meg and how she’s just the hardest worker, how she puts in the most time, puts in the most energy, and you want your best player to do that, right? Because they lead and you can’t be jealous, right? There’s no way when you see her in the gym all the time, you see her working so hard. And she’s such a humble teammate that nobody wants to be jealous of her. And she credits her teammates all the time.
But even at this summer internship at a local bank in town, the president of the bank interviewed her when she was done. He said, “Is there anything that you wish would have been different?” She replied, “I wish I could have been challenged a little bit more.” And she told that to the president of the bank. But I mean, that’s just the type of kid she is — she always wants more, always wants to be challenged, always wants to be pushed.
Iowa is ranked No. 2 in assists per game (22.1) in the country and No. 5 in both assisted shot rate (71.2%) and assist/turnover ratio (1.53). I saw a video where Coach Bluder mentioned they celebrate the assist, which led to:
“Celebrate the Assist”
I believe that you’ve got to reinforce that behavior. Because everybody knows that the people that score the baskets get celebrated. Everybody admires them, claps for them. But I’m the one that always wants to say, “No, you’re the one that set it all up.” We’ve even went as far as sometimes celebrating the hockey assist. You know, the assist before the assist. To me, that’s a thing of beauty when the ball never hits the ground. So much fun to watch. Our kids understand it, we reward that, we always talk about who had the most assists after games and the next day in practice, and [we] recognize those people.
You can see what they are doing right, they are really passing the ball well, they’re distributing the ball well. Now, it helps to have a target like Megan who can catch everything and who can convert everything because, you know, you get there[to Megan], it’s almost always automatically an assist in your bank account.
Coach Bluder has had an amazingly consistent run of success in her 18 years at Iowa that includes 11 seasons with at least 20 wins and only one season with a winning percentage below .500.
How do you keep that consistency of excellence over the years with a different cast of characters every year?
In coaching, it’s 25% turnover every year. Part of that is sad, because you get connected to those women. You get them just the way you want them, and then they leave. But part of it is fun, because you have a new group coming in every year that now it’s a new challenge, right? It’s a new dynamic every year, a new challenge. It’s a new story every single year. And that’s kind of fun. You know, it’s really cool to see what those women go on and do after they leave your program. You know, and so what kind of gets all of us as coaches excited is what our women do after they leave our program.
But part of it, I think, has been I’ve had Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald as assistant coaches for 25 years. Jan and Jenni both are associate head coaches and we’re best friends. They are loyal, organized, hard working, you don’t have to worry what’s going on behind your back. All those things help. You’re not spending time hiring and firing. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy and we don’t have to spend that time and energy. We don’t have to spend time training people, we don’t have to teach people what we want because it’s already there. So I really think just the three of us having been together for so long really helps that situation.
And then being at a school like Iowa where they love women’s sports. Christine Grant was our athletic director for 27 years and one of the [original] advocates of Title IX and gender equity. And you have administration behind you. It helps because we all have a little bit of sub-par years and it’s, “Are they ready to jump ship?” when you have a sub-par year or do they believe in what you’re doing and stand behind you? I think there’s too many people that just want to kick people out the door when that happens. And so I like the loyalty and Midwest values that Iowa provides.
What changes have you seen in the game over the years?
I think the speed of the game, the weight training, nutrition. The coaching is better, there’s no doubt the coaching is better now than it was. The athletes that we’re getting, the experiences that they have when they come to our programs - they’re more prepared when they come to our programs because of the excellent AAU programs that they’re playing in and USA Basketball experiences that they’re having, those type of things.
Who are some of your mentors?
Vivian Stringer was a mentor for me. When I was at St. Ambrose, which is an hour away from Iowa City, she was at Iowa and so I would always work Vivian’s camps, and I would come over and watch her practice and come over to watch the games and I’d sneak into Carver and sit there in press row and listen to her. I always wanted her to talk louder because Vivian is not a loud talker. And so I always wanted to get her to talk louder, so I could hear what she was saying. But no, she was definitely somebody that I admired. And now here I am sitting in the same seat. So it’s weird how it’s come full circle. Now she’s back in the Big Ten [as Rutgers head coach]. So we play against each other every year. So that’s pretty cool.
And I also had a great high school coach. Wasn’t my head coach, was an assistant coach and her name is Susan Kudrna and she played at William Penn back in 1976, when it was all one division, AIAW. And they were in the Final Four. She was a Kodak All American. And then the next year, she was my high school assistant coach. So I had a really great example of what you can achieve through college basketball and so that was pretty cool.
The women’s basketball landscape this year seems to be any given team on any night:
You look at Rutgers and what they’ve done from last year to this year; pretty amazing and so yeah, we’ve had a lot of parity. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this much parity in the league and maybe even as the whole United States. I mean, we’ve seen some years where a team is number one and it never changes and so I think right now if you have to pick the top four number one seeds, you got trouble. And it’s never been that much trouble in the past. But right now, it’s a battle. You know, it’s I think it’s nationally, and I think it’s within the Big Ten.
How deep of a dive does your team do with analytics?
Numbers are great. I love numbers, I’m kind of a stat girl. But numbers don’t always tell the whole story. And I think sometimes you have to listen to your gut; you have to listen to your intuition. But certainly numbers are helpful. And I think they can help you have a game plan going into things. So I appreciate the numbers side of things, and we definitely have. Every year we get a little bit more into it. And I have a video guy now, that is really into it. And so it’s fun when you have somebody that’s passionate about it on your staff, because then they can kind of dive into it, and then help you understand it and break it down a little bit easier. Because otherwise, you can spend a lot of time on analytics.
I think it’s cool. Well baseball, Moneyball, they’ve been doing it and football is getting more and more into it. And so I just think it’s so exciting. We have all this information at our fingertips. You know, how many times they go right? How many times they go left, how they handle ball screens, it’s amazing what we have right now. And so you’d be a fool not to use it to some extent, right? You’d be a fool not to use it in setting up how you’re going to handle certain situations.
Do you feel the coverage and support of women’s basketball in general and at Iowa is adequate?
Since I’ve been in the coaching profession, no doubt it’s grown, but it can get better. I just see what our women do and how hard they work and what they put into it. We’re one of the top drawing teams in the United States; we were 13th best last year, but there’s still empty seats at Carver. I have one of the best players in America on my team and there are still empty seats at Carver. You know, I walk by the [Iowa] Book and Supply Store and there’s a men’s basketball jersey hanging in the window and not a Megan Gustafson jersey, so that stuff I guess, still bothers me. And, you know, I just think we still have a ways to go but it’s society, right? It’s people not supporting women in sports, not giving it the value that it really has. Because we all recognize the value; nobody can argue the value that women sports has. And if people just give it a chance, they’ll see how exciting it is and what a different brand it is. And if people think of women’s basketball from 20 years ago, and it’s changed, even 30 years. It’s changed and it’s so exciting and so well played.
As for the game that night, Iowa did what they do best and turned a first half 32–40 deficit into a 81–63 victory to improve to 12–4 (3–2 in Big Ten play).
Megan Gustafson had 34 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks
Tania Davis had 21 points and 7 assists as well as a halftime talk that helped spark the comeback (per post-game interview.)
And the Hawkeyes had 25 assists to celebrate!