UI women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder on the sidelines during a UI women’s basketball game. PHOTO BRIAN RAY/HAWKEYESPORTS.COM
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By Nate Kaeding
Lisa Bluder, the illustrious head coach of the University of Iowa women’s basketball team, starts every practice by gathering her team in a circle at center court. Assistant coaches, support staff and players all join in.
“We start our practice in a circle because that emphasizes to me that everyone matters,” she said during our recent conversation at her office in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, adorned with team photos, game balls and trophies. “We are toe to toe, because there’s no head to the circle, no end. Everybody’s the same. And so that’s an everyday thing where we can talk about culture. It can take 30 seconds. What is one positive thing that happened in our program this week? It doesn’t take long, but I think it has to be a conscious effort.”
For more than 19 years, Coach Bluder has been inculcating a winning culture amongst her teams, but perhaps none more successful than this past season, as the Hawks – led by NCAA National Player of the Year Megan Gustafson – made a thrilling run all the way to the Elite Eight. We sat down to discuss the year that was, her philosophy of coaching and keeping things fresh, year in and year out.
NK: Congratulations on an amazing basketball season. It had the Corridor and the entire state of Iowa energized around women’s basketball. I took my daughter Tess to a few of the games, and the one thing we can always tell when we go watch your teams play is there’s this genuine happiness. How do you instill that love of the game and love of each other into your program?
LB: I think that’s an important part. And Nate, thank you for bringing your daughter to our games. We appreciate that. But the culture of our basketball program is something we work at all the time. We know it just doesn’t happen. It’s something that you have to be mindful of, and that you have to make sure you continue to work on all the time. We have a philosophy of we care about each other. You don’t necessarily have to like each other, but you’ve got to care about each other. We make that choice every day.
And I think that’s just a part of our culture. One of our values is everyone matters on our team, regardless if you don’t play or if you’re Megan [Gustafson]. You’re all important to the success of our program, and I think our women really feel that. They also see the camaraderie of our staff. Our staff has been together for a long time. … Maybe that’s a good example for them.
When you were a high school athlete at Linn-Mar High School, was a career in athletics always in the stars for you?
Far from it. Growing up in the ‘70s, I wanted to be a PE teacher. And everybody said, “Don’t do that, because there are no jobs available in education right now.” So I actually went to Northern Iowa and got a business degree. I have a marketing degree and an art minor. I actually think my business degree has been really good for me as the women’s basketball coach here, because there’s so many similarities between marketing and management and public relations.
Did you get right into coaching, or did you have a foray into business?
No, I worked for an advertising company up in Waterloo for a year. But I missed basketball desperately and wanted to get back into it, and so I found a way.
What was it about the sport that you missed the most?
I think it was the competition, especially back then. It’s not as much anymore, ironically. But I missed the competition, the camaraderie, being a part of a team, having this unbelievable goal that you can really see if you reach it or not. It’s tangible. In business, sometimes you don’t always see those things unless you own the company. But in basketball, and in athletics, you see that direct result. You get immediate feedback, even on a practice.