If St. Ambrose is a cradle of Division I women's basketball coaches, then Jim Fox–the curmudgeonly former Quad Cities prep football coaching legend who directed St. Ambrose athletics from 1984 through 1994–would be the hand that rocked the cradle.
Reluctantly, perhaps, at first.
"I know when I first got there, he probably hadn't been to many basketball games in his life–he wasn't a fan," said Lisa Bluder, the current University of Iowa women's head coach who may have been the cagiest of Fox's SAU hires. "By the time we left, he was a huge fan of women's basketball. He saw the value and supported it greatly at that point."
Before he died in 2006, Fox remembered he was on the verge of hiring another candidate when an application from Bluder crossed his desk in the summer of 1984.
|Robin Becker Pingeton||351-175||2|
On a hunch, Fox and then vice president of administration and future university president Edward Rogalski, PhD, opted to hand the energetic rookie the keys to the St. Ambrose program.
"It was a stroke of good fortune, but we did see something in her that was extraordinary," Rogalski said. "We saw that and took the chance."
With that, this cradle of coaches was off and rocking.
Bluder begat Robin Becker Pingeton '90, who begat Tasha McDowell '98.
When the 2011-12 season began, they collectively helmed three of the 338 Division I women's basketball programs around the country: Bluder at Big Ten Iowa, Pingeton at Big 12 Missouri and McDowell at Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference.
Add Iowa State's Bill Fennelly (at right), a Davenport native who assisted St. Ambrose women's coach Bob Duax as a college freshman in 1976, and you could have fielded a Final Four filled with big-time coaches with a Queen Bee pedigree.
"It's kind of cool to think about it that way," Bluder said. "There has been a good group that has gone through there, that's for sure."
If the SAU coaching pipeline isn't quite unprecedented among small college programs, it is exceedingly rare.
Bluder can recall only one comparable situation, but it is a doozy. Immaculata University in Pennsylvania has ties to three coaches who advanced to Division I Final Fours.
"That's pretty impressive," Bluder said.
St. Ambrose needn't apologize.
Bluder won better than 82 percent of her games over a 6-year span at the Queen Bees helm, and in 2010 became just the 34th coach in NCAA women's basketball history to win 500 games. She opened this season with a 567-241 career record and ranked second in all-time wins at Iowa with 211. Her Iowa teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament in eight of her first 11 seasons and she took Drake to a pair before that.
Pingeton poured in a still-SAU-record 2,502 points under Bluder's direction from 1986-90, and then, upon graduation, followed her coach to Drake for two seasons as an assistant coach. She returned to St. Ambrose to helm her own program from 1992 through 2000, eclipsing Bluder's school record of 165 wins with 192 of her own. She led the Queen Bees to the national tournament five times.
After three seasons as a Fennelly assistant at Iowa State, Pingeton became head coach at Illinois State. There, her teams won three conference championships and advanced to a pair of NCAA tourneys from 2003-10. She is in her second season of rebuilding at Missouri and opened the season with a 351-175 career record.
McDowell (at left), a Rock Island native, played a lone SAU season under Pingeton in 1995-96, leading a 27-7 team in scoring, assists and steals. She launched her coaching career as an SAU student assistant the following year and then spent 11 years as an assistant at some of the top Division I programs in the country before becoming head coach at Western Michigan in 2008. She was let go in March after failing to turn around the WMU program.
Fennelly also is a 500-game winner over 23 seasons of head coaching, 17 at Iowa State. He wasn't looking to coach when he enrolled at St. Ambrose as a freshman, but Duax, a family friend, asked if he would be interested in helping launch a women's program.
"I really enjoyed it and appreciated that chance," Fennelly said. "It got me hooked to do what I have done all my life."
The current quartet might not be the last Queen Bee products to grace a Division I bench. Future candidates include:
Jenny (DeSmet) Putnam '91 - The Rock Island Alleman graduate has been a Pingeton assistant since 2003 and a coach for over a decade. Currently, the wife and mother of three said she is content at Missouri. "It's a great situation so there is just no reason to leave," she said.
Jennifer Goetz '07 - A three-time St. Ambrose All-American as a player, Goetz spent three seasons as an SAU assistant, then led Davenport Assumption to an Iowa state high school title in her head coaching debut last year. Currently is head coach at Pleasant Valley (Iowa) High School.
Krista Van Hauen - Current Queen Bees head coach brought three years of experience as a Division I assistant, one at Bradley and two at Northern Colorado, to St. Ambrose. Last year's 29-5 record was the best debut by any of SAU's 10 women's coaches.
Duax, Dave Day and Ken Buckles had solid success prior to Bluder's arrival in '84, but the program truly found legs with her on the bench and Becker on the floor.Women's basketball was just a club sport that inaugural season, but it has gone on to become arguably the most successful varsity program on campus with an 844-287 record over its first 35 campaigns, each of those a winning season.=
"Give a ton of credit to Lisa and to that administration when she was there," Pingeton said. "She had to pave a new way of thinking. I think she brought that mindset of what it took to be successful in that program. That opened the door for me. And from there, it opened the door for Tasha."
Bluder said the support of Rogalski, Fox and then Vice President of Finance Ed Henkhaus '64 allowed her to create an attractive program for recruits via road trips to California and Florida, and games vs. big-school opponents like Notre Dame, Iowa State and Bradley.
"I think St. Ambrose let us out of the box a little bit and let us try different things to be successful," Bluder said.
Rogalski said Bluder and her successors helped themselves by recruiting smart players who could supplement partial grants with academic scholarship money. Players also engaged in fundraising. And alumni benefactors helped with the beefed-up travel budgets as well, Rogalski said.
Rogalski, though, said that putting women's sports on the same level as men's was important at St. Ambrose and said that meant going beyond federally mandated Title IX funding. "We wanted to make a commitment that was not just the routine one," he said.
Bluder and Pingeton said support at St. Ambrose went beyond the bottom line, citing a team/family approach that included the help of current men's coach and athletic director Ray Shovlain '79, '82 MBA and countless others like Don "Duke" Schneider '76, who televised games and coaches shows on SAUtv.
"That wasn't happening at that level then," Pingeton (at left) said. "I don't know if it happens now at that level, to be honest with you.
"It's amazing how a place like that can have such a huge impact on your life,'' Pingeton added. "There were so many people there who were willing to put their arms around us, help guide us, mold us, lead us and mentor us. Those are the kind of people that are at St. Ambrose. They allow you to spread your wings and be successful."
Pingeton said key lessons were learned from wearing so many different hats while commanding a small college program.
"You're the equipment manager, you wash uniforms, there's no task that is beneath you," she said. "You really have to roll up your sleeves and do everything."
McDowell said one thing she learned in her two years with the program is that SAU coaches do everything the right way.
"It was a school and a program of integrity," she said, "and I try to run my program that same way."
Pingeton agreed, noting her central mission as a coach today is the same as it was for her first game as the queen Queen Bee.
"I don't care if I am coaching NAIA or Division I," she said. "It's about the opportunity to give back to a sport you love, really impact players' lives and give them a chance to be successful."