May 16, 2024 

Inside Jan Jensen’s introduction as Iowa’s next head coach

Newly-retired Lisa Bluder to serve as advisor to coaching staff

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Jan Jensen has had her share of opportunities over the years to leave Iowa and lead her own program. But the risk of staying was well worth the reward as she was officially announced Wednesday as the Hawkeyes’ women’s basketball head coach. 

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She succeeds her mentor and close friend Lisa Bluder, who announced her retirement Monday after 40 years as a head coach, the past 24 at Iowa with Jensen at her side. 

Bluder’s announcement came as a surprise to just about everybody, including Jensen, who has coached with her for the past 33 years, first at her alma mater Drake, where she also played for Bluder for a year, and then at Iowa, where she has been associate head coach for the past 20 years.  

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Over the years as the top assistant coach for a top program, Jensen has had offers from other schools and even seriously considered a few of them. 

“There’s been double-digit opportunities. Everybody is strategic. You get to a certain point in the interview process. It’s kind of like recruiting – if you feel like they’re not in, then you shift,” she said at a press conference Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I’d say there was two, maybe three, where I was like, ‘ooh, maybe that’s the one, maybe I should go.’”

“But I’m an Iowa kid. I believe in it. I believe my education at Drake University helped me become who I am. The way the people are in our great state, the way it feels over here,” she explained. “I was never wired — there’s just two different ways to do it. Some people, they hop, hop, hop, and they get back to where they wanted to go.”

In staying the course, she has already experienced moments many other coaches can only dream of, including three straight Big Ten Tournament titles, two straight trips to the Final Four and National Championship game, sold-out arenas and a generational player who is taking the women’s sports world by storm. 

“Some people had called, and I talked, but at the end of the day, there’s no place else I wanted to be. That’s why I feel grateful that it worked out,” she said. “But this doesn’t work out often. You can take this risk and stay and stay and stay and then you don’t get the opportunity.”

“It is not lost on me that I’ve gotten to have my dream job at a place that I love and now I get to have my dream title. Are you kidding me? And I don’t have to move?”

Lisa Bluder, who was the Iowa women’s basketball head coach for 24 years, shares a laugh with longtime assistant Jan Jensen just before a press conference May 15, 2024, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, introducing Jensen as Bluder’s successor as head coach. Photo credit: Brian Ray/Iowa Athletics

Passing of the baton 

After the national championship game in early April — in which Iowa lost to undefeated South Carolina — followed by the WNBA Draft a week later where Iowa guard Caitlin Clark was the top pick taken by the Indiana Fever, Bluder went on a well-earned vacation with her husband, David.   

“When she came back and said, ‘I’m going to bring you by some coffee, I said, ‘oh, yeah.’ [Assistant Coach] Jenni [Fitzgerald] showed up, too, and I thought, ‘what’s happening here?’”

She soon found out and was immediately faced with a mix of emotions of losing the Batman to her Robin and then being elevated to her dream job at the place she loves. 

“When she told us, it was kind of a little bit of a shock,” Jensen recalled. “You’re unsteady for a second. It’s a lot of years together – 33 years of trying to do something together.”

“But I think both things can be really true. You can be really, really happy, and I was so happy and fired up for the possibility, especially when [athletic director] Beth [Goetz] called me up and said, ‘hey, do you want to visit,’ and I said, ‘how fast, yes, can I get there.’ But at the same time, it was almost a mourning of what was because it’s like anything in life. It’s a beautiful chapter closed.”

“So, it’s the ability to experience the realm of emotions. But for me, what I just feel so blessed with the overriding emotion has always been gratitude. I’m so grateful for all that was and just incredibly excited for, hopefully, all that will be.”

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Steadying the ship

After processing her own emotions, she faced perhaps the largest task of her career – telling the players and getting them on board with the transition. 

“The team needed a little time. But then they’re just great young women. Lisa has earned this moment. So she should celebrate that, but also, whoa, you’re sad,” she said. “But we had such a good rapport;  we all had a process, and then when they processed, everybody was on board.”

And then came the more delicate task of calling the recruits, including Lucy Olsen, the forward transfer from Villanova who just committed to Iowa after being one of the top prospects in the portal this spring. 

“Monday was probably one of the most intense days that I had ever experienced. It had every emotion of elation but also that uncertainty,” Jensen said. “You’re thrusting into the head coach role, but my best friend is also retired. Sometimes you just want to give her a hug…but Lisa and I were on the phones trying to just explain that, ‘yeah, it’s different, but we’re going to be okay.’”

The call to Olsen, who was third in the nation in scoring (23.3 ppg) last season behind Clark and USC’s JuJu Watkins, was difficult, but productive. 

“She was great. Disappointed, yes, but I think when the recruiting process is done well, they get to know everybody. That’s part of the process, and the way Lisa has always led. She’s done tremendous things, but she’s always made us all feel a part of it, and that’s how she’s always recruited. That’s how I’ve recruited, and that’s how I’ll continue to recruit,” Jensen said. 

“I think Lucy felt that, and after that initial shock, her mom and dad were like ‘this is a great place, the culture remains.’ After the initial couple minutes, by the end of that conversation, she was great. I’m very, very grateful for that.’” adding that current players are helping the incoming freshmen through the process. “It was really a pretty cool, beautiful thing, and I’m so grateful for that.”

The coaching staff knew they were on a tight time frame to talk to the team and recruits before the news came out publicly Monday. 

“We knew we were up against the clock, because we knew when that release came out, people are going to process in different ways,” Jensen said. “We had a couple of our phones going and were trying to just assure and reassure and took as much time with everybody as needed. I can’t thank the parents enough. I can’t thank the young women themselves enough; they were so gracious, and they processed with us. By the end of the day, including our players, I think I probably talked for — geez, from 3 p.m. until about 10:30 p.m. nonstop of just trying to make sure everybody could ask as many questions and feel comfortable.”

“It was intense, but we got there little by little,” she added. “I just am so thankful for everybody’s belief. But it was, I will say, to date, that type of organizational day and what was at stake, probably one of the most intense days, but thankfully ended up being one of the most gratifying days.”

Jan Jensen walks with her family, wife Julie Fitzpatrick, and children Jack and Janie, to the press conference May 15, 2024, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, introducing Jensen as Iowa women’s basketball’ next head coach. Photo credit: Brian Ray/Iowa Athletics

The Jan Jensen Era

With Jensen’s family – wife, Julie Fitzpatrick, and their children, Janie and Jack – beaming from the room filled with media, fellow staff and friends, Goetz introduced the loyal assistant as the next University of Iowa P. Sue Beckwith Head Women’s Basketball Coach.

“This is a seamless passing of the baton,” Goetz said. “The definition of a true teammate is someone who embraces their role, commits to honing their craft with the sole expectation to serve those around them and make the team better. Jan Jensen has learned from the best, positioned the program for unprecedented achievements, and has been an integral component over the past decades in making Iowa one of the most successful college women’s basketball programs in the country.”

“Under Jan’s leadership, you will continue to see a team that plays with heart, with unmatched toughness, and plays an exciting brand of basketball,” she added. “We have a coach who welcomes high expectations, has an energy that inspires all those around her, and a contagious enthusiasm that will continue to flame the passion of her team and our fans across the state and beyond. How amazing is it when the easy choice is the right choice, and in Caitlin Clark’s words, ‘the only choice.’”

Jensen acknowledged her family who “understand the schedule, and understand it’s going to get even more intense.” She also thanked Bluder and Fitzgerald, who was her Drake teammate before embarking on a 33-year coaching journey with her two best friends. 

“I especially want to thank Lisa Bluder. She’s great in every realm,” Jensen said. Thank you for everything you’ve done for this program. Thanks for letting me be part of the ride here, and thanks for coaching me when I was at Drake and letting me be a part of that ride there and taking a chance on me at a young, young age. I want to thank you for how you have impacted me and for kind of being part of the plan all those years ago and for believing in me, preparing me, helping me fan this dream and now to make it a reality.”

“I also want to thank Jenni Fitzgerald, another one of my best friends, one of the three amigas,” she continued. “Jenni has way too often been an unsung hero, always behind the scenes and never, ever has she gotten the credit or the shine that she deserves. She is an incredible coach. Her basketball acumen is really unparalleled, and she has helped me on this journey.”

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While the past week has been whirlwind, Jensen has already had some thoughts and conversations about what her staff will look like, including who will be her Jan Jensen. 

“I think that the name of the game for this level is you can’t win the race if you don’t have the horses,” she said. “So, it’s a lot about recruiting and making sure that our game plan that we’ve always had remains seamless. We have to pick the right person that’s going to be able to come in as a newbie and keep that recruiting synergy going, and obviously some of that strategy-wise, too. But those are things that we’ll be looking at, the synergy, how they gel, and certainly bringing the things I’m working on in the job descriptions, looking for people to identify all of those things.”

The coaching staff is well aware that their rock star team will look much different next year as their transcendent  star Clark has moved on to the WNBA. But they are ready for the challenge and the opportunity to write a new chapter in the storied history of Iowa women’s basketball.  

“I think that whether there was a coaching change or not, even two weeks ago, the majority were so ready for this next season,” Jensen said. “They’re curious. They’re excited. They want to see what the next era is going to be. Two weeks ago I didn’t know that it was going to be, quote-unquote, my era.

“But the same vision that I had working with Lisa will be continuing. You want to do it at a high level. You want to do it with integrity, never compromising your values, and you want to put a product on the floor that’s fun to watch and fun to cheer for and fun to play. That will remain the same. Now, how we do it, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. We’ve had pretty good success. But I’m going to put my own little stamp on it.

“There’s different sets that maybe when we had our coaching meetings, it’s a collaboration. Some of the things that maybe I wanted to vote for, they got voted down. Well, now guess what: I’m going to give it my shot, right?,” she said tongue in cheek.

Bluder, who was in attendance at Jensen’s introductory press conference, will serve as an advisor for the coaching staff in the upcoming season.

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Written by Angie Holmes

Angela Holmes is the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) reporter for The Next. Based in the Midwest, she also covers the Big Ten and Big 12.

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