June 1, 2024 

End of an era at Iowa

Jenni Fitzgerald retires after 32 years alongside Lisa Bluder and Jan Jensen

After Jenni Fitzgerald’s retirement from coaching was announced last week, Iowa’s special assistant to the head coach headed to Vegas with her Hawkeye buddies to celebrate. 

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The trip mixed business with pleasure as the Iowa coaching staff sat courtside at Michelob ULTRA Arena on the Las Vegas strip, watching three of their former players take the WNBA court at the same time — a first for the Hawkeye women’s basketball program. 

“What an amazing feeling to see all that out there and all they’ve accomplished and what the program has produced. I kind of felt like a proud mom,” Fitzgerald, who has been a member of the Hawkeyes staff for the past 24 seasons, told The Next.

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Former Hawkeyes Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever and Megan Gustafson and Kate Martin of the Las Vegas Aces were all on the floor together during the Aces’ 99–80 win over the Fever.

“This was the first time for us to have multiple players in the league together. We’ve had the individual ones out there at different times, but not in the same year. So, that was a pretty special moment,” Fitzgerald said. 

It was a culmination of many special moments ‘Fitz’ has shared with recently retired Iowa women’s basketball head coach Lisa Bluder and her successor Jan Jensen over the past three decades.

Iowa women’s basketball special assistant to the head coach Jenni Fitzgerald and former head coach Lisa Bluder share a laugh. Both have recently retired from the Iowa women’s basketball program. (Photo Credit: Iowa Athletics)

Ready to officially retire

After spending the last three decades as a member of Bluder’s staff, first at Drake and then at Iowa since the 2000–01 season, Fitzgerald knew heading into the 2023–24 season it would likely be her last.  

“I have been kind of moving in that direction for a while. I kind of knew at the beginning of this year that this would be my last season coaching,” she said. “I wasn’t waiting on to see what Lisa was going to do or anything like that. I was pretty sure I was going to be done — 99.9%.”

After the 2018–19 season when the Hawkeyes advanced to the Elite Eight and Gustafson was named the program’s first consensus National Player of the Year, Fitzgerald stepped back from the associate coaching position and became Bluder’s special assistant.

“I switched roles a few years back to have a little more free time and do some things that I personally wanted to do,” Fitzgerald explained. “I just wanted more free time. I mean, this job just takes up all of your time. I was missing family events, family reunions. You have to step out at dinner to take a call. I just felt I wanted more freedom to actually be able to do those things.”

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“At first when I changed roles, I was like, ‘I’m done. It’s time for me to be done.’ Lisa was like, ‘I think you should stay on. Let’s just try it.’ And, of course, it evolved into this really special time for Iowa women’s basketball, so I could not be happier that I did not actually completely retire when I switched roles.”

While she had experienced many special moments in her coaching career up to that point at Drake and Iowa, nothing could have prepared Fitzgerald for the juggernaut Iowa women’s basketball would become just years later behind its generational talent, Caitlin Clark

Clark’s freshman season, 2020–21, occurred while COVID-19 protocols limited attendance at games and cut short travel and in-person recruiting. Once the fans were allowed to come back to the stands the next season, the rest was literally history.

On her way to becoming the NCAA’s all-time leading Division I scorer — men’s or women’s — Clark led the Hawkeyes to three straight Big Ten Tournament Championships and two straight Final Fours and National Championship game appearances in 2023 and 2024. And as Clark continued to break scoring records, the Hawkeyes broke attendance records and gained droves of new followers.

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Iowa’s 2023–24 season began with an exhibition game against DePaul at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City that drew more than 55,000 fans to the Hawkeyes’ football stadium. The team then played each home game in front of a sold-out crowd of around 15,000 people at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And the sold-out crowds weren’t just in Iowa City. Besides selling out every home game, the Hawkeyes played in 37 of 39 away games that were either sold out or had an attendance record. This year’s Big Ten Tournament in the 19,000-seat Target Center in Minneapolis was sold out for the first time in its history.

Fans who were unable to get tickets tuned in to watch in record-breaking numbers. This past season alone, Iowa was a part of the most watched women’s basketball games on seven different major networks. The Iowa-UConn game in the Final Four was ESPN’s highest audience for any basketball game ever, and the National Championship game against South Carolina brought in 18.7 million viewers, peaking at 24 million viewers.

And Fitzgerald had a front-row seat for all of it as an NCAA rule change, which went into effect last July,  allowed six coaches instead of four to engage in coaching activities.

“What was really cool about this year is that when I switched roles, I stopped coaching, which was kind of my favorite thing to do. I was obviously still involved in scouting and I coached through the other coaches if that’s the way you want to look at it. But to actually be able to coach again this past year because of the little changes was super fun for me,” she said. 

Jan Jensen (12) and Jenni Fitzgerald (21) were teammates at Drake University before joining Lisa Bluder’s coaching staff. (Photo courtesy of Jenni Fitzgerald)

How it began

Fitzgerald was the starting point guard and team captain at Drake University her sophomore year in the 1988–89 season when forward Jan Jensen joined the Bulldogs as a freshman. 

The two played together for three seasons before Fitzgerald graduated and served two years as a graduate assistant at Southern Illinois. During her senior year in 1991–92 at Drake, Jensen was coached by Bluder, an upstart coach who came to Des Moines after six seasons at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

After Jensen spent a year playing overseas professionally, the era of the “Three Amigas” officially began when she and Fitzgerald joined Bluder’s coaching staff at Drake in 1993.

“It was two different positions open, so she applied and I applied, and we both were able to get the jobs and it was great. It just kind of took off from there,” Fitzgerald said. 

The trio spent eight years at Drake, leading the Bulldogs to four Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championships (1995, 1997, 1998, 2000) and three regular season titles (1997, 1998, 2000).

Jan Jensen, Lisa Bluder and Jenni Fitzgerald coached together for 32 years at Drake and Iowa. Both Bluder and Fitzgerald announced their retirement in May 2024 while Jensen was named the Hawkeyes’ new head coach. (Photo credit: Iowa Athletics)

The Hawkeye years

Jensen and Fitzpatrick followed Bluder to Iowa City in 2000 when she was named head coach at Iowa. In the past 24 years, they have led the Hawkeyes to 22 postseason appearances, including five Big Ten Tournament Championships, two Big Ten Regular Season titles, 18 NCAA Tournaments, five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and two National Championship Game appearances.

Primarily responsible for the guards, Fitzgerald coached 17 players to a total of 37 All-Big Ten honors, including 15 First Team All-Big Ten selections. She coached eight Hawkeye guards that made it to the WNBA, including Cara Consuegra, Lindsey Meder, Crystal Smith, Kachine Alexander, Sam Logic, Kathleen Doyle, Martin and Clark.

After the Hawkeyes’ 34–5 season that just ended in April, Fitzgerald was surprised when Bluder announced her retirement in early May, but couldn’t be happier for Jensen to step into the head coaching role. 

“She worked for it. I think what’s really cool is the loyalty that she’s shown, that we’ve both stayed for all those years. It paid off; it doesn’t always happen that way,” Fitzgerald said of Jensen’s promotion. “She deserved it, she’s earned it and I think she’s going to do great.” 

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During her introductory press conference May 15, Jensen praised her two best friends and coaching partners, pointing out that Fitzgerald often was out of the limelight.

“Jenni has way too often been an unsung hero and always, always behind the scenes and never, ever had she gotten the credit or the shine that she deserves,” Jensen told reporters. “She is an incredible coach. Her basketball acumen is really unparalleled. And she has helped me on this journey. She’s helped me in so many moments in life. We’ve enjoyed so many fun moments way back when we started as teammates at Drake. I’m just so thankful to have had this ride with you.”

Like Jensen, Fitzgerald had opportunities to leave Iowa over the years but chose to stay at Iowa. 

“I really loved what I was doing and I felt like I was pretty darn good at it and didn’t feel like I had to have this desire to go on and actually be the one that’s in charge,” Fitzgerald said. “What’s great about working with Lisa, and I suppose it comes with the years that Jan and I worked for her, we were just given a lot of autonomy and a lot of authority to make decisions and be a big part of it. She was very collaborative with us and made you feel like you had just as much skin in the game as she did.”

Giving each other grace 

So how have the three maintained such a strong friendship over the years while working in such stressful, high-profile positions?

“It’s really weird. It just works,” is Fitzgerald’s short answer. 

“I always felt that Lisa was excellent at all different things and everything. And Jan and I were very good in certain areas and complemented each other,” she further explained. “Jan is a phenomenal recruiter and great with words, where I was kind of more analytical and wanted to be more with numbers and Xs and Os. We didn’t always agree. Jan sometimes would be like, ‘it needs to be more warm and fuzzy’, and I would be like, ‘no, this is what you should tell them.’ You would have those kinds of conflicts but we usually just fell somewhere in the middle and it always worked out.”

In the end, their friendship always prevailed. 

“What was great about not just being coworkers, but also becoming best friends is you could have those arguments or those moments where things weren’t perfect, and you would just show each other grace and forgive each other,” Fitzgerald said. “I think as we grew, you could see times where if I was starting to get tense with something, Jan would maybe step in and try to calm it down. You just develop that over time. But I do think that even the moments where we were cranky with one another, they weren’t that bad. We just chalk it up to just being competitive and like sisters and then you just move on from it and forgive each other. But there weren’t that many moments.”

Fitzgerald’s last day on the Iowa coaching staff is June 14. In the meantime, Jensen is working on building her own staff. While Bluder has agreed to stay on as an advisor, Fitzgerald says she will be cheering on the Hawkeyes from the stands.

The scene at Carver-Hawkeye Arena will look different next season without Bluder or Clark, but Fitzgerald expects the excitement for the Hawkeyes and women’s basketball to continue. 

“You have the fan attendance and things that keep it in the national spotlight,” she said. “So yeah, I definitely think it can be maintained. I’m certainly going to be there. I’ll be cheering very loudly.”

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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