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Iowa women’s basketball coaches’ friendship makes Final Four run extra special
Lisa Bluder recruited Jensen, Fitzgerald to Iowa staff with dream of going to Final Four. Now they’re there.
DALLAS — Jan Jensen was at a crossroads in 2000.
The then-Drake University women’s basketball assistant coach had a choice to make.
Lisa Bluder had just left Drake to take the Iowa head coaching job and wanted Jensen on her staff. But Drake, Jensen’s alma mater, “talked about” naming her its next head coach.
“Let’s go to Iowa, and we could do something special there — Big Ten,” Jensen remembers Bluder telling her. “Let’s go to a Final Four.”
Jensen and fellow then-Drake assistant Jenni Fitzgerald listened to Bluder more than two decades ago, and the longtime coaches and close friends are reaping the benefits with Iowa women’s basketball’s 2023 trip to the Final Four.
“To be able to do this at the Final Four with three of your best teammates for all these years, it doesn’t get any better,” Jensen said.
The Bluder-Jensen-Fitzgerald trio is in its 23rd season at Iowa, although exact roles have shifted over the years. Jensen is in her 19th season as associate head coach, and Fitzgerald is in her fourth year as special assistant to the head coach.
Bluder and Jensen “are like my sisters,” Fitzgerald said.
“We are each other’s best friends,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been very blessed to have that — to be great friends and be able to coach together.”
Some of the best memories are not necessarily the ones that accompanied the best teams.
“Even the good and the bad,” Fitzgerald said. “The times that were stressful — you look back and now you laugh at them, and we make fun of each other all the time.”
Iowa’s ascension to a Final Four-caliber team took time — partially a result of a top tier of women’s college basketball that previously seemed impenetrable.
“There’s not a lot of new (teams) that get in this Final Four,” Jensen said. “A lot of the time, it’s the Stanfords, and it’s the UConns and so forth.”
Bluder’s first Sweet 16 appearance was in her 15th season at Iowa. The first Elite Eight appearance? Year No. 19. Now, the Final Four is in year No. 23.
“So we’re just really, really, really grateful,” Jensen said.
Going back to 2000, Bluder also tried to bring Lisa Brinkmeyer with her to Iowa City from Drake, but Brinkmeyer “didn’t bite.” Brinkmeyer is an assistant director at the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
Fitzgerald and Jensen, meanwhile, have stuck with Bluder.
“When I first started out as a GA (grad assistant), I never imagined myself coaching,” Fitzgerald said. “I always wanted to get my master’s and then go out and work for Nike, work at that time at Converse.”
Fast-forward to 2023, and Fitzgerald is not only still coaching, but she’s doing so at the Final Four.
“Jenni at Drake might be a little surprised,” Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “But she’d also be super proud.”
Jensen has a national reputation for her development of elite post players, and that has brought some career advancement opportunities. Yet she has stayed with Bluder, Fitzgerald and the Hawkeyes.
“Jan has had many opportunities to go on and be an assistant or head coach at a lot of Division I places,” Bluder said. “But we have always said we enjoy what we’re doing so much here. You never know what it’s like on the other side of the fence.”
And they hadn’t accomplished all of their goals yet.
“We hadn’t finished the job,” Bluder said. “I’m not saying the job is done yet.”
Bluder, with the help of Jensen and Fitzgerald, is one of 15 Division I coaches to win at least 800 games. She has more wins than any other Iowa men’s or women’s basketball coach.
“You’re happy about your career and how hard you’ve worked and the life you’ve had,” Fitzgerald said, “but the ultimate goal is you go to a Final Four.”
The Final Four appearance adds another line to Bluder’s resume for the Hall of Fame.
“I've always thought, well, she doesn't have to make a Final Four to get there,” Fitzgerald said of the former Naismith Coach of the Year. “This kind of seals the deal for her — that someday she’ll be in the Hall of Fame, where she deserves to be.”
Much has changed in the 23 seasons since Bluder recruited two of her Drake assistants to stick with her.
When Bluder accepted the Iowa job, her oldest daughter, Hannah, was about 2 1/2 years old. Now, Hannah is the team’s director of basketball operations.
The coaches are also 23 years older, and some memories might not be as crystal clear.
“You get a little bit older, and everything gets a little fuzzy,” Jensen said.
But the memory of Bluder pitching the Final Four possibility remains vivid.
“And then to do it, boy, it feels great,” Jensen said from the Hawkeyes’ Final Four locker room.