DES MOINES, Iowa -- Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk thought her almost-7-month-old son, Eli, was about to drift off for a morning nap before she went to work. The little guy looked as if he were fading …
Baranczyk recalled hearing a men's basketball colleague once say his team reminded him of his infant daughter.
"At the time, I thought, 'Huh?'" said Baranczyk (pronounced bah-rahn-check), who took over at Drake this spring, just before Eli's birth. "Now I totally get it. We do something so small, and you just celebrate it like crazy. We take little steps, and you wobble a bit and fall over. But you look at a picture of us from a month or two ago, and we really are different."
At that very moment, Eli did a common baby U-turn: Forget about sleep, he wanted to be picked up, pronto. Baranczyk laughed as Eli furthered the analogy between baby and team.
"And sometimes, we're needy," she said. "We hold our hands up and want Mom."
"Mom" in this case is only 30 years old, but her family says Baranczyk has been coaching since second grade, when she started playing basketball for her dad, Terry, a former college hoops player. Jennie didn't officially have the title and the dry-erase board then, but she was already on her way to being Coach J.
Now she's in her first head coaching job at the same time she and husband Scott are raising their first child, a blond cutie who was born May 8 and just a couple of days later made his first visit to Drake's Knapp Center. Which, yes, sometimes serves as Eli's "nap" center.
"We've been around Eli since he was born," Drake junior guard Alyssa Marschner said. "And we'll see him grow up, which is awesome."
But while they're watching Eli grow, the Bulldogs themselves hope to do the same thing. That will come under the tutelage of a woman who, like her son, was born in Iowa's capital city with a basketball pedigree.
Jennie Lillis Baranczyk was born in February 1982, three weeks before the start of the first NCAA women's basketball tournament. That year, Drake advanced to the Elite Eight, where Bulldogs star Lorri Bauman scored 50 against Maryland (which is still the record for most points in a women's NCAA tournament game).
Baranczyk went on to win two state championships (1998, 2000) at Dowling Catholic and have an All-Big Ten career at the University of Iowa, playing for former Drake coach Lisa Bluder. Baranczyk knows the history of girls' athletics in Iowa is much richer than in most states. The term "the Iowa girl" described generations of young women who aspired to get good grades, practice good citizenship and be good athletes.
"I don't know that I really understood all that when I was coming through school," said Baranczyk, who's in the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Hall of Fame. "But I do now. There's a lot of pride in this state; when you're from Iowa -- or have been here long enough to be considered an Iowan -- then people from Iowa really want you do well."
She grinned then about the fact that her state also doesn't lack for self-belief.
"Actually, Iowa people just assume that if anyone's from Iowa, they must be good," she said. "But I know I have to go out and prove that."
Training the Bulldogs
Drake lost twice by single digits in a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in New Mexico. Now this week in practice, Baranczyk saw some of the same timidity that she'd seen at crucial moments in the team's opening games. She stopped the action to send a very clear message.
"You can't be hopeful … you have to be confident!" she told her players. "If you miss, you miss. Stop being scared!"
Baranczyk knows her team needs that brand of Iowa self-confidence. As it happens, though, none of the current players actually are from Iowa.
But the coaching staff has the Iowa-roots thing covered, as assistants Allison Pohlman and David Lane and coordinator of basketball operations Kelsey Bolte are all Iowa natives.
In 2011, Bolte finished an All-Big 12 career at Iowa State. Pohlman, a standout at Northern Iowa from 1996 to 2000, is the one holdover from the previous staff led by Amy Stephens. In her nine seasons, Stephens went 151-130, making one NCAA tournament appearance.
Last season, the Bulldogs were 18-16 overall, 9-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference. They lost in the first round of the WNIT. Not a terrible season … but everybody felt pretty terrible by the end of it. Some fractures had developed between Stephens and the players. It happens.
Drake was losing leading scorer Rachael Hackbarth off a team that averaged just 59.2 points. Stephens decided it was time to move on.
Meanwhile, Baranczyk was in her second season as an assistant at Colorado, after previous stays at Kansas State and Marquette. Coaches talk a lot about "dream jobs," which the cynical among us think is typically whatever job they happen to be in.
But this really was Baranczyk's dream: to go to her hometown for her first head-coaching job. That she was soon to be a first-time mom was not an obstacle.
"I asked her, 'Are you ready for all this: a new baby and a new job all at the same time?'" Drake athletic director Sandy Hatfield Clubb said. "She didn't even hesitate. She said, 'Scott and I have talked it all through. We're ready now.'"
It's a team effort for the Baranczyks. Scott, a native of Green Bay, Wis., used to hang around Lambeau Field with other kids and loan his bike to players if they wanted to make quicker trips between the stadium and practice facility. Scott went on to play football at Wisconsin-La Crosse, and met Jennie while she was coaching at Marquette.
He had an established medical-equipment sales career in Wisconsin but left when she got the call at Colorado. He got into the same field there, then opted to launch his own business that he could run at home when the couple moved to Iowa this spring.
That way, Eli usually has Daddy around when Mom is occupied with her basketball "babies." Plus Jennie's parents, other family members and longtime friends are available to help, too.
"People say it's hard timing for so much to have happened this year, but it actually couldn't have been better timing," Jennie said. "Nothing could have been better than to be able to come home to Iowa and do what I'm doing with all the people I have to help me.
"Without Scott, though, I couldn't do it. He's sacrificed a lot for me. He's my sounding board and my best friend."
Scott, who was a linebacker in college, said they make a good match in part because they have complementary personalities. Jennie is the risk-taker; Scott's more cautious. He makes the analogy that if they were out exploring new territory, "Jennie's fearless. She would always be the first one racing up a hill to see what was on the other side. I wouldn't be first. But I would be right behind her. Because I believe in her."
The right answer for Drake
So does Hatfield Clubb, who saw in Jennie someone who could fit instantly into the Drake community and rebuild some shaken psyches among the players.
Hatfield Clubb knows that the Bulldogs, off to a 1-4 start, will have their struggles this season. She's certain, though, that Baranczyk will be a long-term success at Drake.
"I love to be around people who are winners in life," said Hatfield Clubb, who worked with Charli Turner Thorne, a mom of three, at Arizona State. "And Jennie just has this tenacity about her that you could see in her as player and now as a coach."
The Bulldog players say the same thing.
"The new staff has really brought back the love of basketball for a lot of us," said post player Stephanie Running, the team's lone senior.
Added sophomore guard Kyndal Clark, now the Bulldogs' leading scorer: "We are excited to come to practice. We're all about moving forward. Even when we hit bumps in the road, we keep going."
There most definitely will be bumps. One of them came Tuesday, when at nearby Iowa State -- which coach Bill Fennelly took from the dregs to being a perennial Top 25 program -- Drake took a hard pounding, 87-45.
Eli had gone to sleep by the end of that game, something you knew his mom wouldn't do for a while that night as she reviewed it in her head. People who race to see what lurks over the next hill generally don't have patience as a natural virtue. But it can be an acquired one. Baranczyk knows she'll need it.
"Jennie is going to be a star," Fennelly said. "She appreciates the opportunity, and she knows a lot of people have mentored her. Now it's her turn."
She'll keep doing one-on-one meetings to help players grow their leadership skills. She'll be an energy force so vibrant that after many games, she feels as worn out as if she had played.
She'll continue to make connections in the community and bond with her fellow Drake coaches. She's already good friends with her men's basketball counterpart, Mark Phelps, and football's Chris Creighton. Drake's enrollment is around 3,500, about 10 percent of whom are student-athletes, and so the feeling of camaraderie between programs is palpable.
And, of course, Baranczyk will also focus on being Eli's mom. In a moment all young parents could relate to, Scott and Jennie cracked up while recounting how he recently had texted her a picture of Eli's diaper content while she was at her office. The baby had been a bit out of sorts earlier, but the photographic "evidence" showed he was doing fine.
"You get that and think, 'Wow, that's so awesome! Great! He's feeling better!'" Jennie said, laughing. "But that concern you have really is the same for your team, too. You want what's best for them.
"I came here, and we have 13 women on our team, and I didn't know them. You have to figure out how to talk to them, what they need and want from you."
They're working their way through it together. And you get the feeling that Eli, the littlest Bulldog, will hear several funny stories about it all one day.