Will OU lose Jennie Baranczyk to Iowa some day? Not necessarily

Will OU lose Jennie Baranczyk to Iowa some day? Not necessarily

When Iowa coach Lisa Bluder retires, OU’s Jennie Baranczyk would be a leading candidate for the Hawkeyes, but there are reasons for her to stay a Sooner.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 23, 2024, 7:08am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 23, 2024, 7:08am CDT

Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder is 62, has taken the Hawkeyes to amazing heights in the Caitlin Clark phenomena, and Clark has announced she will leave Iowa for the WNBA after this NCAA Tournament.

In related news, OU coach Jennie Baranczyk is an Iowa girl who starred for the Hawkeyes and played for Bluder.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Probably not. I’m thinking the Sooners are not in danger of losing Baranczyk to Iowa City.

OU plays Florida Gulf Coast at 3 p.m. Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana, an NCAA Tournament game that brings Jennie B. back to her Big Ten roots. Meanwhile, at 2 p.m. Saturday, 400 miles to the northwest, Bluder’s Hawkeyes host Holy Cross, the first in a series of steps that Iowa hopes results in a second straight trip to the NCAA championship game.

Some OU fans have wondered if Bluder, in her 24th year as the Iowa coach, could be nearing retirement, especially with the iconic Clark riding off into the cornfield, and if so, would the Hawkeyes come after Baranczyk?

You can always be surprised, but Bluder doesn’t sound like a coach ready to step down, and Baranczyk doesn’t sound like a coach itching to leave.

Iowa is a program that stood tall before Clark arrived and became a cultural icon. Bluder was the 2019 national coach of the year, after taking the Hawkeyes to the regional finals, and the popularity of Iowa women’s basketball was building before Clark’s ascension to cultural superstar.

And Baranczyk, who in three seasons has coached the Sooners to back-to-back Big 12 championships and a 73-25 record, seems to know that she’s in a women’s sports haven.

“We’re in this really unique space here in Oklahoma, where we’re driving softball, women’s gymnastics,” Baranczyk said. “We have these female sports that are just dominant in what they’re doing, so it’s been fun to be able to see that, but also watch women’s basketball rise on a national level to all new heights.”

Patty Gasso in softball, K.J. Kindler in gymnastics, Sherri Coale in basketball a generation ago. All built huge fan followings and won big. Gasso (seven NCAA titles, including three in a row) and Kindler (six NCAA titles in the last 10 years) have built dynasties. Coale’s teams reached three Final Fours.

So Baranczyk knows that what Iowa is doing — massive success, huge fan following — can be replicated in Norman.

“Looking at Oklahoma, I 100 percent believe that we will continue to build the fan involvement, the fan numbers that I feel like we’re very capable of doing,” Baranczyk said. “I know it wasn’t long ago playing at Oklahoma, you didn’t want to play there … because you knew that there were going to be a lot of fans and fan involvement.

“If there was not a belief in that, I would not be here.”

Lloyd Noble Center once roared with women’s basketball fans. The NCAA Tournament would sell out the LNC, and in Courtney Paris’ senior year of 2008-09, OU was fourth nationally in average attendance, 9,007.

But the crowds slowly subsided. By 2019-20, Coale’s final season not impacted by Covid, OU averaged 2,254 fans. Baranczyk’s first Sooner season averaged 2,352. OU was up to 4,409 this season.

Sounds a little like the Iowa story. Bluder is in her 24th season as the Hawkeye coach — Baranczyk was in Bluder’s first recruiting class — and has been mostly-successful, with a 523-253 record and only five teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.

The Hawkeyes drew in the 3,000-5,000 range for most of that time but raised that to a 6,797 average in 2017-18 and 7,102 in 2019-20, the latter the final season before Clark’s arrival and the sellouts soon enough ensued.

So the Iowa program is much more than just Clark. Bluder signed a contract extension in 2023 that goes through 2029. Two of Bluder’s assistant coaches, Jan Jensen and Jenni Fitzgerald, have been with her all 24 years at Iowa and were players on Bluder’s first team at Drake, in 1993. Jensen has been mentioned as a likely successor, when Bluder retires. Baranczyk is on that short list, too.

But the signs are few that Bluder is nearing retirement.

“I feel like Lisa Bluder does an incredible job of leading with humility,” Baranczyk said. “Obviously she has a superstar on her team in Caitlin, and I think Caitlin has become a household name, and I think that’s through obviously her success but also through the NIL platform.

“Again, going back to your question about Lisa, I think she does a great job of leading with humility. I think she does a great job of giving the players on her team the keys. That’s something that I’ve really taken away and really loved playing for her.”

Baranczyk was an excellent player as a 6-foot-1 forward at Iowa. She averaged 14.4 points and 6.8 rebounds for her career; she made first-team all-Big Ten as a junior in 2003 and second-team all-Big Ten as a sophomore and senior.

During an OU practice Thursday, Baranczyk gave her squad a little history lesson about the NCAA Tournament.

“She kind of was just talking a little bit on the history of back when she played,” said OU guard Payton Verhulst. “She’s never the person to brag on herself …  I just think it’s interesting when you have a coach that’s so knowledgeable on the sport and playing and coaching. I think it just makes it fun to be able to have conversations like that.”

Baranczyk was appalled that her players accused her of talking about herself.

“I did not talk about my playing days yesterday,” Baranczyk said. “They asked me who was good in the Big Ten when I played and then decided to let me know how long ago it was that I did play.

“So I not only have my players telling me that, I have my own children that also say that, that ask me all the time if I was as good as Caitlin Clark. I say, yes, just a different time, but that’s not true at all.”

No Caitlin Clark, but an Iowa hero just the same. And a prime candidate to be the next Hawkeye coach, when Lisa Bluder decides to retire. But that day doesn’t seem close, and Baranczyk has reasons to say no if Iowa comes calling.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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