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IOWA Alumni Magazine | January 2018
Growing Up Hawkeye
They were raised under Herky's wing. Now, four coaches' kids are making a name for themselves at Iowa.

They attended countless practices, watched endless hours of game film, and traveled to new arenas each week.

And that was before they ever put on a Hawkeye uniform.

For the children of several longtime Iowa winter sports coaches, UI athletics have been a way of life from an early age.

Hawkeye fans may remember a young Hannah Bluder singing in front of the cameras during her mother's first Iowa City press conference. Madigan Brands hugging her dad after cheering him on at the NCAA championships. Taylor Libby absorbing the lessons her mother drilled home in her gymnasts. And Connor McCaffery dribbling in the corner while his dad led another long practice.

Today, each of these coaches' kids are making their own mark at the UI as student-athletes or, in Brands' case, as a student-manager. Although these homegrown Hawkeyes share a last name with some of the most recognizable sports figures in Iowa, they've worked tirelessly to succeed on their terms and by their own merits—often in a sport beyond their parent's profession.

Iowa Alumni Magazine recently spent time with each of these family duos to learn what it was like growing up in the Hawks' nest, the challenges of balancing family life and big-time college sports, and the unique bond they share beyond the bright lights of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.


From Mat to Bat

Photo: Mark StastnyLarissa and Taylor Libby

When Taylor Libby tagged along with her mother to work as a kid, she didn't just scribble quietly at a desk or make paper chains with sticky notes. Instead, she climbed ropes, flipped onto mats, and teetered across balance beams.

Photo: courtesy Libby family 2001

"I would say I was born in the gym," says Taylor on a recent morning in the UI Field House, where she grew up watching mother and former Olympian Larissa Libby lead Hawkeye women's gymnastics practices. "Some of my earliest memories were jumping on a trampoline and being babysat by the gymnasts. It's a very family-oriented sport, and that shows in how I was brought up."

Like the gymnasts she idolized, Taylor is now a student-athlete at the UI—though the only time she worries about sticking a landing is when she dives into home plate. After deciding at an early age that her heart wasn't in gymnastics, she's forged her own identity on the softball diamond. Taylor is entering her second season with the Hawkeye softball team after a decorated prep career at Iowa City West High School and a freshman year slowed by an ACL tear.

While women's gymnastics combines athleticism with artistry, Taylor, a power-hitting catcher, was drawn to the grittiness and physical nature of softball. Not to mention, her father, Chad Libby, is a softball lover who coaches youth teams and spent years tossing pitches to Taylor.

"Gymnastics is a very individual sport, and my personality is more team-oriented," says Taylor, who studies graphic design and sports marketing at the UI. "Softball is also, I would say, less flashy. It's a little more impact oriented, and you get dirty. And I liked that."

It's a different path than her mother, a gymnastics prodigy growing up in Canada who won national titles and a spot on her native country's 1988 Olympics team. Larissa competed collegiately and served as an assistant coach at Louisiana State University before joining the coaching staff in Iowa City. This winter marks her 18th season at Iowa, where she's served the past 14 years as head coach.

Although her family has been the GymHawks' biggest cheering section at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and at the occasional road meet, Larissa has always wanted Taylor and younger sister, Bailey, to explore their own interests. She made a point of keeping her profession and parenting separate by not coaching her daughters—though Bailey has naturally gravitated toward gymnastics.

"I wanted my kids to be involved in a sport because they liked it, not because I chose it for them," says Larissa, the Big Ten's reigning coach of the year. "I'm always thrilled when my kids find something they're passionate about, and it's very clear that while Taylor liked gymnastics, she loved softball. It also helped her define herself a little more."

Taylor has, however, followed in her mother's footsteps in at least one area. She's begun coaching in the offseason, and this summer she'll work as an assistant for the high school softball team in West Liberty, Iowa, where her dad is head coach. After watching from the sidelines for all those years as her mother motivated student-athletes, Taylor aims to similarly inspire young players. "Her dedication to her team inside and outside of practice is unlike anything I've ever seen," Taylor says. "And I hope I can embody at least half of that passion for her sport."


A Hawkeye from the start

Photo: Mark StastnyLisa and Hannah Bluder

It was a moment Lisa Bluder will always remember. A first-year coach at Iowa, Bluder and her Hawkeyes had just dethroned three-time defending champion Purdue to win the 2001 Big Ten women's basketball tournament. During the postgame celebration, conference commissioner Jim Delany presented the championship ball to Bluder, who coached her team to the upset despite being up all night at the hotel with a sick 3-year-old. Bluder in turn handed the prize to her toddler, Hannah, who was on the mend from the flu.

Photo: Associated Press 2001

The kid wasn't impressed. "Mom, I want to play soccer,'" announced Hannah, who promptly tossed the ball aside.

Now in her 18th season at Iowa and the dean of Big Ten coaches, Lisa has celebrated many more Hawkeye triumphs with her family. Yet today, the roles are often reversed between mother and daughter, with Lisa cheering on Hannah's own successes as a Hawkeye.

Just as she envisioned as a 3-year-old, Hannah Bluder has charted her own course in a sport other than basketball. Hannah is a member of the UI's rowing team—an up-and-coming program that last year enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent history—while in the classroom, she's a sports and recreation management major with a business emphasis. The sophomore hopes to one day land an internship with a sports organization and explore career possibilities on the business side of athletics.

"To have your daughter be a Hawkeye—it's what you sell every day as the women's basketball coach here," Lisa says. "I just don't know that I could write a check out to another school."

A basketball and soccer player while at Solon High School, Hannah—the eldest of Lisa and David Bluder's three children—says there were plenty of perks to being a coach's kid. She has fond memories of trips to the Final Four, visits to arenas around the country, and hours spent hanging out with the student-athletes she idolized. At the same time, there were challenges—the increased scrutiny, the sky-high expectations, and the many nights and weekends when her mother was away from home.

The Bluders' bond extends well beyond sports. Hannah enjoys cooking with her mom, and Lisa looks forward to long walks together outside their country home north of Iowa City. During basketball and rowing season, they make time in their busy schedules to catch up over weekly breakfasts and lunches. Still, they sometimes can't help but rev the competitive engines they share, whether it's board games with the family or Horse on the driveway hoop. "My mom has never let me win in pingpong," Hannah says.

With basketball behind her, Hannah seized the opportunity to compete collegiately in a new sport when a rowing coach approached her before her freshman year. "It's more of an endurance sport, and it's mentally tougher," Hannah says. "Basketball takes more athleticism and skill, and you think more. I've definitely gotten stronger by rowing, and you use different muscles."

Last year, Hannah competed in five meets with the freshman crew. Lisa was on hand for the Big Ten rowing championships last spring in Indianapolis, where Hannah's freshman boat finished fourth in the novice division—just a second away from medaling. This spring, she'll compete with a Hawkeye varsity team that in 2017 earned its first trip to the NCAA championships in 16 years.

Though Lisa is Iowa women's basketball's all-time winningest coach and one of the top names in her profession, she notes that Hannah has already earned something she can't achieve. "She has an Iowa letter jacket," Lisa says with more than a little pride.


managing partner

Photo: Mark StastnyTom and Madigan Brands

Thanksgiving is one of Madigan Brands' favorite days of the year. The Brands' Iowa City home is filled with food, laughter, and family—not to mention about three dozen hungry
college wrestlers.

Photo: courtesy Brands Family 2007

"It's a free-for-all," says Madigan, who helps her mom, Jennifer Brands, 94BA, prep in the kitchen for the massive annual meal, which falls at the beginning of wrestling season. This past holiday's training table featured three smoked turkeys, plate-buckling slabs of ham, and enough trimmings to pin a heavyweight to the couch for the afternoon.

Madigan, a student manager for the UI wrestling team, is the oldest of Hawkeye coach Tom Brands' three kids. But growing up, she had a veritable roster full of older brothers. During team meals at her house, Madigan and her cousins were notorious for swiping the hats of the wrestlers, who would chase them around the living room. She was also known for playing a mean game of Memory.

"She was dang near undefeated," says Tom, 92BS, of Madigan's board game prowess. "She would whip everybody. She would whip our best wrestlers. She'd whip our coaches. She'd whip her dad. It would get pretty competitive."

"It runs in the family," adds Madigan.

Along with her competitive spirit, Madigan also inherited a love of wrestling from her father and uncle, Terry Brands, 92BGS. Tom's storied career included three national championships with the Hawkeyes, an Olympic gold medal in 1996, and three NCAA team titles as the UI's coach. Twin brother, Terry, is likewise a Hawkeye grappling legend and current associate coach for the program. Another Brands will also soon join the Hawkeyes: Terry's son, Nelson, is among the state's top prep wrestlers and has committed to wrestle at Iowa beginning in the 2018-19 season.

The past two seasons, Madigan has served as one of the Hawkeyes' three student managers whose duties include logging matches in the scorebook, videotaping meets, washing laundry, arranging team meals, and coordinating travel plans. She can be spotted matside at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, not far from her dad, trying her best to not leap to her feet and cheer when matches heat up. "I get really invested, and it's hard not to express that," she says.

It wasn't always that way. As a kid, Madigan would yawn her way through meets while playing her Gameboy in the stands. But as she grew older, she found herself drawn to the action, and when she arrived at UI as a student, she knew she wanted to be part of the program. Today, Madigan is a UI sophomore studying health and human physiology. In her free time, she's working to become a certified yoga instructor—an activity that, much like wrestling, requires extraordinary body control and focus.

While she competed in cross country, volleyball, and tennis in high school, Madigan said her father has never been one to foist sports on her or younger siblings Kinsee and Tommy. Says Tom: "Jennifer and my focus with the kids is, 'Do your homework.' It wasn't about being a world-class athlete or world-class trumpet player. It was about getting your homework done, and if you have that discipline in your life where you come home and work on the things that are most important, that's going to serve you best."

Madigan has traveled with her family around the country for countless meets, including the past two seasons aboard the team bus with her dad. While her friends were on spring break last year, she was at the NCAA championships. "My friends were on the beach, and I wasn't even jealous," she laughs.

But Madigan's most memorable trips are the vacations the Brandses take each summer out west. No matter how busy Tom's summer is readying wrestlers for national, world, and Olympic competitions, he and Jennifer make time for an annual road trip with the kids to places like Mount Rushmore, Jackson Hole, and Yosemite. Says Tom: "Those trips with the kids are priceless things."


The Rising Son

Photo: Des moines RegisterFran and Connor McCaffery.

One day this past summer, incoming UI freshman Connor McCaffery woke up early to lift weights with his new basketball teammates at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, then hustled over to Duane Banks Field for batting practice. Two workouts in one morning would be enough to send most back to bed, but Connor's day was just getting started.

Photo: Associated press 2010

Next up was a second baseball practice—this time at Iowa City West High School, where he was finishing out his senior season—then back to Carver for an afternoon basketball session as the Hawkeyes prepared for their summer trip to Europe. And as if that wasn't enough, he swapped his sneakers for cleats yet again for an evening doubleheader at West High.

That grueling summer schedule is behind him, but life hasn't slowed down much for the Hawkeyes' new dual-sport athlete. On top of his ambitious plan to play Big Ten basketball and baseball, the business major is adjusting to his first year of college course work and aiming to make the dean's list.

But Connor wouldn't have it any other way. "Playing two sports really complicates things for his day, but he loves it," says Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery, who shares his son's time with Hawkeye baseball coach Rick Heller in a unique winter-spring sports arrangement.

This isn't the first season Fran has coached Connor, who's the eldest of the four McCaffery children. While head coach at Siena College in New York a decade ago, Fran found time to lead an AAU squad that included Connor, then a fourth-grader, and younger brother Patrick, a second-grader. Patrick, now a talented junior forward at West High, won a state title last season with Connor before announcing that he too would join the Hawkeyes in 2019.

Few players enter their freshman season as prepared for what's to come as Connor, who opted to forgo redshirting when a spot in the guard rotation opened up in the preseason. "We've been going to Big Ten games now since I was in sixth grade," Connor says. "I've seen the intensity, I've seen all the players, I've seen tons of guys around the league who are now in the NBA. I've been on road trips and been to arenas, witnessed those atmospheres. I've been able to see a lot of things that not everybody gets to see."

Connor's fascination with sports began at an early age, recalls Fran. The first time he put on a basketball uniform, he scored 22 points in a peewee league game. Then came grade school, when Connor would call Fran, then the coach at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, from the school office asking when the college team's practice started and if he could get a ride. And unlike Patrick—who was a superhero-loving, costume-wearing kid—Connor preferred to watch game films with dad instead of cartoons.

When Fran was introduced at Iowa in 2010 after five seasons at Siena, his wife, Margaret, and young kids were by his side at his first press conference. Connor has been a fixture at Carver ever since. As a ball boy shagging rebounds for players like Devyn Marble, 17BS, and Matt Gatens, 12BA, Connor soaked in practices from the side of the gym, hoisted jumpers on courts around the country, and bonded with players and recruits who came to the house for dinner. By the time he was in high school, Connor had grown to 6-foot-5—an inch taller than dad—and became a 19-point-a-game scorer and a .400 hitter.

"Watching film and going to practice for all those years at a young age was an education for him in the basketball world, and it benefited him greatly when he started playing at highly competitive levels," Fran says. "He's always been a cerebral player—he's got the combination of talent and basketball intellect."

Genetics are also on Connor's side. Fran earned the nickname "White Magic" playing collegiately at Wake Forest University and the University of Pennsylvania, while Margaret scored more than 1,300 points during her All-American career at Notre Dame. Though Fran is famous for his fiery passion on the sidelines, Connor says that away from basketball, his dad is just the opposite. "A lot of people see him out here on the court and they think that he's just kind of intense and tightly wound, but he's really not," Connor says. "He's very relaxed and just kind of a chill guy who's really fun to hang out with."

 

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