IOWA CITY — Lessons learned on the campus of St. Ambrose continue to guide Lisa Bluder.
The three-time Big Ten women’s basketball coach of the year at Iowa cut her coaching teeth at the Davenport university. Hired as a 24-year-old rookie in 1984, over the next six seasons she built the Queen Bees into an NAIA national power.
“It was such an impressionable time of my life, my first chance to coach and to build a program. Who I am today has a lot to do with what I learned at St. Ambrose,” said Bluder, who joins Jim Jamieson and Matt Lackey as inductees into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame.
Bluder moved into a new office at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last fall, but in it she is surrounded by memories of her past. There are coach of the year plaques she received while coaching at St. Ambrose, photos of the day she received an honorary degree from the school and artwork that includes a bee.
“St. Ambrose is all about family, loyalty, faith, all things that I still carry with me to this day,” Bluder said. “They are part of the culture of that institution and they continue to be the cornerstones of my program here at Iowa.
“I owe so much to the experience I gained there, from what I learned from coach (and athletic director Jim) Fox and his wife, Beth, to the conversations I had with the other administrators, other coaches on staff, coach Ray (Shovlain), football coach (John) Furlong, and others. It was an important time in my life.”
Bluder actually arrived in Davenport before she was hired to replace Ken Buckles as the Queen Bees’ coach.
After completing her collegiate career at Northern Iowa, she was working camps and working in marketing for American Color Professional Imaging Corporation in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
She wanted to relocate to the Quad-Cities to be closer to her fiancé and now husband, Dave, who was then working for Von Maur and later worked at Davenport Bank & Trust.
“I missed being part of the game at that time and making the move, I wanted to explore the possibilities,” said Bluder, who was then Lisa Beske.
Her first attempts were not successful. She sent letters inquiring about possible assistant and graduate assistant positions to St. Ambrose, Marycrest and Augustana.
“I didn’t even get a rejection letter back from any of them,” she said. “That was disappointing, but I made the move anyway.”
She was living in a house on Denison Avenue near Vander Veer Park when a retired educator living across the street spotted a classified ad and told Bluder that St. Ambrose had a late-summer opening for a women’s basketball coach.
“If it weren’t for Dorothy Buech spotting a classified ad in the Quad-City Times, none of this would have happened,” Bluder said. “I banged out a resumé on my typewriter that night and had it to Jim Fox the next day.”
Within a week, Bluder found herself interviewing with Fox and Ed Rogalski, the future president of the institution who at the time was a vice president.
“We had lunch in the priests’ cafeteria and talked about the job,” Bluder said. “I remember telling him I felt like I could teach more than how to shoot baskets and play defense, that I felt like it was a coach’s job to help prepare their players for life and Coach Fox liked that.”
The interview led to a job offer and Bluder’s first chance to put her negotiation skills to work.
“He offered me $2,400 a year and I worked him up to $2,500,” Bluder said. “I was pretty proud of that.”
Program in place
Bluder took over a program that was on solid ground. Buckles had led St. Ambrose to winning records in each of his six seasons, including a 29-4 record the year before Bluder was hired.
“It was the perfect first job because the program was in good shape,” Bluder said. “In the other two moves I’ve made, the situations were not as good and there was more work to be done.”
The first of the 586 victories Bluder has had in 872 games as a head coach came in an 88-77 victory over Clarke.
Her first Queen Bees team earned wins over her alma mater, UNI, and suffered losses to Bradley and Iowa State on its way to an 18-13 record in the 1984-85 school year.
From start to finish, Bluder found her first season as a coach to be an experience.
She shared an office at Lee Lohman Arena with other coaches and was near the end of her fourth year on the job when she finally had a telephone in her office.
“There was some trial and error,” Bluder said. “I remember my first preseason. We were running drill after drill in practice and after two weeks, I remember a couple of players coming up and asking if we were ever going to start working on any plays. I was so focused on fundamentals I hadn’t even thought about it at that point.”
Bluder recalled an early road trip for a pair of games in northwest Iowa, memories still vivid because of what didn’t go right as much as what did.
“The coaches drove vans in those days to take their teams to games and we made it all the way to the truck stop in Walcott before we had to stop,” she said.
“Long story short, we ended up leaving one of the girls at the truck stop and we were a few miles down the road before we realized that she wasn’t in our van and that she wasn’t in the other van. We turned around and went back to get her.”
The trip ended with more than half the team coming down with an illness and six players suiting up for a game against Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, where St. Ambrose finished the game with four players on the court after two fouled out.
“You don’t forget trips like that,” Bluder said, “but you do learn from them.”
Bluder and her teams learned quickly.
St. Ambrose reached the NAIA national tournament in her third season on the bench, ousted in the quarterfinals by the eventual national champion in both 1987 and 1988 on teams led by Patty Campbell, the second player in program history to earn all-American honors.
Challenging schedules that included games against Notre Dame and St. Louis and holiday road trips to face multiple NCAA Division-II programs helped build the program.
“Coach Bluder brought a lot of enthusiasm to the program and related well with her players,” said Shovlain, who took over the St. Ambrose men’s program he continues to coach one year before Bluder was hired.
“She worked hard to build her program to an elite level, and a lot of it had to do with the approach she brought to things.”
The Queen Bees finished 31-5 in 1987-88, the first of three consecutive seasons they topped the 30-win mark.
Robin Becker, Liz Ciprian, Carleen Forler and Cindy Born helped lead Bluder’s team to the NAIA national semifinals the following two years.
“We had a good core group of players, and Coach Bluder brought it all together. She was the glue who was able to get the most out of us,” said Liz (Ciprian) Erickson, who now lives in Chicago.
No. 1 ranking
Bluder entertained an offer to return to Northern Iowa as its head coach after St. Ambrose finished 35-2 in the 1988-89 season, but turned down the chance because she believed the Queen Bees were positioned to challenge for the national title the following year.
After rejecting the offer from then-UNI director of athletics Bob Bowlsby, who would later hire her at Iowa, Bluder’s intuition proved correct.
St. Ambrose won its first 33 games in 1989-90 and earned the program’s first No. 1 national ranking.
“We had a strong following of fans from around the Quad-Cities, great support, and Coach kept us working and kept pushing us to get even better,” Erickson said. “It was disappointing at the time not to reach that ultimate goal, but looking back, we still have a lot of great memories on and off the court from the experience.”
Southwestern Oklahoma ended the Queen Bees’ NAIA title hopes in the national semifinals in what proved to be the final game of Bluder’s 165-36 tenure at St. Ambrose.
Bluder was named as the NAIA national coach of the year following the 1989-90 season, and after interviews with Marquette and Drake, she opted to remain in her home state, leaving St. Ambrose to take over a Bulldogs program she would lead for the next decade.
“The timing was right for me to make a move. St. Ambrose is a tough place to leave because of the people, but professionally, it was a move that I felt good about,” Bluder said.
“I liked the thought of staying in Iowa. My parents and Dave’s parents still live nearby and to move from St. Ambrose to Drake to Iowa, it’s been a blessing for me as a coach. It doesn’t happen often in this business. That is something I appreciate every day, and I never forget where it started.”
1961: Born as Lisa Beske in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
1979: Graduated from Linn-Mar High School in Marion.
1983: Earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Northern Iowa, where she was a three-year starter in basketball.
1984: Hired in August as women’s basketball coach at St. Ambrose; coached first team to 18-13 record.
1986: Named NAIA District 15 coach of the year for the first time after leading the Queen Bees to a 20-12 record.
1987: Led St. Ambrose to NAIA national tournament for the first time, coaching the Bees to a 29-3 record.
1988: Queen Bees reached the NAIA quarterfinals for the second straight year, falling to the eventual national champion and finishing 32-5.
1989: Coached St. Ambrose to a 35-2 record and a spot in the NAIA Final Four for the first time, losing a 90-89 game to Claflin (S.C.) in the national semifinal.
1990: Earned NAIA Converse national coach of the year honors after 33-1 season that ended in NAIA national semifinals and saw St. Ambrose ranked first nationally for the first time; after compiling a record of 169-36 over six seasons, left St. Ambrose to become the women’s basketball coach at Drake.
1995: Named the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year after leading Drake to 25-6 record and second-place finish in the league.
1997: Led Drake to Missouri Valley Conference title, earning coach of the year honors following a 23-7 season.
1998: Bulldogs finished 25-5, Bluder’s best record in her 10 seasons at Drake; won MVC with a 17-1 record and Bluder won her third coach of the year honor in four years.
1999: Coached Drake to semifinals of WNIT as part of a 21-10 season.
2000: Won both the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season and tourney titles during a 23-7 year at Drake, reaching the NCAA tourney for the fourth time in five years; named coach at Iowa on April 7.
2001: Earned first of three Big Ten coach of the year awards after leading Hawkeyes to 21-10 record and a Big Ten tourney championship in her first season.
2002: Iowa finished 18-11 and reached the second round of the NCAA tourney for the second straight season, losing to Connecticut on its home court.
2004: Returned to NCAA tourney after one-year absence, going 16-13.
2005: Reached semifinals of the WNIT as part of a 23-10 season.
2006: 17-12 season ended with a five-point loss to BYU in opening round of NCAA tourney.
2008: Earned Big Ten coach of the year honors after Hawkeyes shared Big Ten regular-season title for first time under Bluder; Iowa finished 21-11 and fell to Georgia in the opening round of NCAA play; won 500th game at the Division-I level Feb. 10 when Iowa beat Penn State.
2010: Overcame 1-4 start in Big Ten to finish 10-8 in the league during a 20-14 season; named Big Ten coach of the year for third time and Iowa reached second round of the NCAA tourney, losing at Stanford.
2012: Finished 19-12, ending string of four straight 20-win seasons, but shared second place in the Big Ten and reached the NCAA tourney. Selected for induction into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame.