Hiring Jan Jensen was the easy — and right — choice for Iowa women’s basketball


IOWA CITY, Iowa — Only a handful of hours after the Iowa women’s basketball team landed home from its summer trip to Croatia last year, the coaches had barely dropped off their luggage at home before returning to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

As then-interim athletics director Beth Goetz shared her short-term vision for the department, then-women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder and then-associate coach Jan Jensen stood bleary-eyed in the back of the room, offering unwavering support. In retrospect, the reason sounds, well, reasonable.

“How do you show that this is our person?” Jensen told The Athletic two months later. “When you show up. It wasn’t even a question.”

Goetz was hired as Iowa’s full-time athletics director in January. This week, she had the chance to reciprocate that faith in her by naming Jensen as Bluder’s replacement as women’s basketball head coach.

“How amazing is it when the easy choice is the right choice and in Caitlin Clark’s words, the only choice?” Goetz said Wednesday.

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On the surface level, Jensen’s hiring appears almost a formality. Jensen, 55, worked alongside Bluder for 32 years, first as an assistant at Drake, then the last 24 as the associate head coach at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have enjoyed unprecedented recent success as a two-time NCAA finalist, a three-time defending Big Ten tournament champion and host to an entire season of home sellouts.

Jensen was instrumental in every facet of that success as an ace recruiter and a skilled developer nicknamed “the post whisperer.” Although depleted a bit from last season’s NCAA tournament run, the Hawkeyes have several talented holdovers, four top-100 recruits and the nation’s third-leading scorer (Villanova’s Lucy Olson) transferring to Iowa for next season.

But Goetz had to look past short-term plusses and evaluate what was best for Iowa women’s basketball for the next decade. There were reasons to look beyond the office two floors down from her own. Jensen never has served as a head coach. An open search would have attracted elite coaches far and wide. Plus, this hire will form a sizable piece on Goetz’s legacy mosaic. Major coaches stay at Iowa for decades. The tenures among Iowa’s four highest-profile jobs are staggering. Bluder completed 24 seasons before retiring. Football coach Kirk Ferentz enters his 26th campaign. Men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands has led his program since 2006. Men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery is the group’s newcomer, but still enters his 15th season at Iowa.

Goetz could have gone in any direction with Bluder’s replacement. Ultimately, the easy choice was the best choice. But it was far from the only choice.

Bluder told Goetz her intentions last week during a recruiting shutdown period, so even the retirement announcement required strategy. Bluder could not call her signees or commits to break the news, nor could Jensen or another assistant tell those players about the future. It took a day or two after the meeting before Goetz called Jensen to start the succession discussion.

“You’ve got to go through a process about how you make those decisions,” Goetz said, “whether it’s short term or over a two-week period. So if I told you I slept really well for a couple of days, that wouldn’t be truthful.

“You really do want to play out everything and make sure you see and you witness all of the things that you know to be true. But you’re not doing your due diligence, even if you don’t go through the interview process, if you’re not playing out what other individuals could bring to a program. And all that did as I went through that process for a handful of days was solidify that we already had the right person.”

Jensen was more than eager for the opportunity.

“When Beth called me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to visit?’ I said, ‘How fast can I get there?” Jensen said.

This is where each situation becomes unique. Jensen said she had “double-digit” offers to become a head coach and turned down two opportunities she described as difficult to pass up. But Jensen is an Iowa native who led the nation in scoring as a high school senior and then as a college senior at Drake. She spent three decades as Bluder’s trusty partner and best friend. Iowa City is home and that matters.

Those aspects mean nobody will love her job more or work harder than Jensen. But if she’s not the right coach, it could cost her the job or — perhaps worst — summon Iowa to mediocrity. The decision came down to Goetz’s evaluation, which she said began with observing Jensen with her players in all environments from practices to national tournaments and beyond. The more Goetz recalled those interactions, the more comfortable she became that Jensen was not just the right fit, but the perfect fit.

The University of Iowa requires a 14-day posting period for any job, but it can be waived for critical athletic department hires. The women’s basketball head coaching position qualifies under that criteria. With an open transfer portal, it was imperative to obtain a waiver or risk losing several players. Once Goetz decided on Jensen, they met with Bluder to apply the right strategy for multiple announcements.

The recruiting shutdown ended Monday, which allowed Iowa’s staff to contact players, signees and commits. Every aspect of the day was choregraphed, from the timing of Bluder’s retirement letter (3:31 p.m.) to Jensen’s official hiring (23 minutes later). Goetz said she wanted to give Bluder — the Big Ten’s winningest women’s basketball coach — her moment before announcing Jensen’s elevation. But Goetz also didn’t want too much time to allow programs to start poaching players.

Instead of returning celebratory texts and calls in the afterglow of her dream-job announcement, Jensen — and Bluder —spent the eight-hour block around the releases calling every player and their families to discuss the transition. To this point, no player has wavered on their commitment to Iowa.

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There’s maturity involved for Goetz to elevate an assistant for a high-profile job. Some ADs like to make their mark with a splash hire, either from a rival or another power-conference program. It could generate ticket sales and donations. Instead, Goetz chose the egoless — and right — option.  Jensen stayed for 24 years because she loves the university, not because she lacked head coaching opportunities. Jensen was just as instrumental in Iowa’s fortune as Bluder. Goetz sees that hiring the right people ensures sustained success, which is a long-term play.

“The hire needs to be good because we owe that to every student-athlete that has ever played here and to this incredible fan base and university,” Goetz said. “I understand that there’s some context to that. But I really feel like you make the best decision when you’re making the right decisions for the institution and that has little to do with how I may or may not be judged on any of those.”

Goetz played the situation perfectly. She allowed Bluder her moment, hired the best candidate for an important job, rallied the fan base and enabled the coaches to keep their players. In other words, Beth gets Iowa.

(Photo: Julia Hansen / Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA Today)





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