Finally a Final Four for Iowa’s ultimate coaching power trio: Bluder, Jensen, and Fitzgerald

Lisa Bluder, center, with her Iowa coaching staff, display some of the hardware they’ve amassed in her 23 years as the Hawkeyes head coach. Could a national championship trophy be on the way?
Photo: Iowa Women’s Basketball Media Guide.

Excuse the teardrops on this column, but your friendly neighborhood paragraph stacker is crying tears of joy.

The Iowa Hawkeyes women’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four.

They’re led by that wunderkind from West Des Moines, Caitlin Clark, the darling of all college basketball this season.

She shoots, she passes, she rebounds, and she fires up an arena like a nuclear blast.

I love Clark, but my happy tears fall for her coaches, specifically Lisa Bluder, Jan Jensen, and Jenni Fitzgerald.

I met them as a wee paragraph stacker at Drake, learning my trade.

I believe that if you had to rank the people of Iowa based on character, you start at No. 4, because Lisa, Jan, and Jenni are in a three-way tie for first.

I covered the women’s basketball team when the ultimate power trio coached my beloved Bulldogs.

Lisa’s Drake teams were the best show in Drake athletics when I was a student from 1993-97. The men’s team of my era remained mired in the same mediocrity that had hounded the team since Maury John left for Iowa State.

Center Tricia Wakely shook off defenders on the way to inside baskets like the rest of us shiver on a cold day. Left-handed guard Kiersten Miller had a way of snaking her arm around opposing ball handlers and popping the ball loose for steals and points.

Forward Kristi Kinne baffled defenders with her patented cross-over dribble, and guard Julie Rittgers swished three-pointers years before Steph Curry made it fashionable.

That team won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, beating Southwest Missouri State on their home floor in Springfield, Mo. They went on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Watching those games remains the fondest memories of my paragraph-stacking career.

But there was more to my affection for Lisa, Jan, and Jenni than their teams’ breathtaking athletic ability.

I grew up in a chaotic household. My dad struggled with heart disease in his final years, making the strongest male role model in my early life fragile. He died in 1988 when I was 13.

My mom was even more problematic, the details of which I’ll spare readers other than to say prescription drug addiction didn’t just start with OxyContin. Mom died in 1990 after a fall downstairs.

My psychologist and I work to untangle the ramifications of those adverse childhood experiences to this day. But one thing I know for sure was there was an absolute, paralyzing fear of women. I struggled to relate to my peers.

It took years for Mom 2.0, the kindly east Des Moines hairdresser who raised me after my first mom died, to get me to accept her love as real and unconditional.

Yet with rare exceptions, up to the point that I started to cover Lisa’s teams, I had a real problem with women.

I viewed women as a threat that should be feared, avoided, and not trusted. This isn’t rational thinking, of course. And it led to some unpleasant behavior in both romantic relationships and friendships with women.

But covering Lisa’s Drake teams, I was exposed to strong, confident, skilled, passionate, and driven women.

I was surrounded by all these powerful women who were kind, genuine, and earnest. And they were led by Lisa, Jan, and Jenni, women whose character was obvious by both words and actions.

I often wondered what my first mother’s life would have been like if she had grown up in the Title IX era and had coaches like Lisa, Jan, and Jenni to show her a path for a young woman.

Lisa’s teams showed me that for all those dark, sad outcomes in the past, there were so many brighter, happier, and more realistic stories that I was missing because a collection of thinking errors drove me to dread interactions with women, rather than cherish these wonderful years with so many spectacular peers.

As a coach, Lisa knows your actions reach far beyond the locker room and court. She helps guide the futures of young people every day.

But the example Lisa set, the actions she took, and the kindness she showed helped heal a frightened, confused aspiring newsman nearly 30 years ago.

I will always be in her debt because you showed me a better way to be. Her teams gave me hope and helped me make peace with old pain.

I still struggle with my attitudes and actions as I relate to women and so many other things in this life. We’re all works in progress.

But thanks to friendships with people such as Lisa Bluder, that work is in a much better place than it ever could have been without her.

Now the eyes of the sporting nation are on my old friends. I couldn’t be happier. I wish I was there on the sidelines, scrawling notes on my steno pad, and talking plays with my buddy, Jane Burns, one of the best journalists and friends I’ve ever had.

But my days on the sidelines have passed. I’m in front of a classroom now, but when the Final Four games come, I’ll be in front of the TV.

Rooting for Lisa, Jan, and Jenni.

Oh, and that Clark kid? She’s good, too.

Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney is a Marion County Express columnist.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

1 Comment

  1. Ng says:

    This is a comment on your podcast. I love the commercials. It takes me back to my childhood.


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