Iowa, rich with basketball history, loves Caitlin Clark so much they carved her out of butter

IOWA CITY — To fully understand the impact that Caitlin Clark has had on Iowa, a state that’s long adored and supported women’s basketball, consider this: For all of the superstars who have come out of this Midwestern hub, for all of the legends who dominated that still-celebrated relic of six-on-six, for all the locals worshipped by other locals, only one has had her likeness carved out of butter.

And that it wasn’t an exact resemblance is not the point.

“Obviously I never expected to be sculpted out of butter,” Clark said, laughing as she recalled the August 2023 statue that went viral. “But if you’re from the state of Iowa, you know that’s a really big deal. You go to the state fair just to see the butter sculptures.”

Clark will graduate this spring as perhaps the single most influential player, man or woman, to come out of the state. While Clark has helped elevate the women’s college game to new heights — the women’s tournament is drawing considerably more hype this spring than the men’s, a direct result of her star power — she did not make Iowa. Iowa made her.

On Saturday, Clark begins her final trek through March Madness, with many wondering if the best scorer in the history of Division I basketball can lead top-seeded Iowa back to the Final Four. In February, the two-time national player of the year announced she would forgo her optional fifth COVID year and enter the 2024 WNBA Draft. She’s projected to be the No. 1 pick, and Indiana Fever fans are so excited, ticket prices have already skyrocketed.

Women's sports have had strong support throughout Iowa for decades. It's fitting, then, that the latest transcendent star in women's basketball - Caitlin Clark - is from the Hawkeye State.
Women's sports have had strong support throughout Iowa for decades. It's fitting, then, that the latest transcendent star in women's basketball - Caitlin Clark - is from the Hawkeye State.

A Des Moines native, she decided to stay home because she wanted to lift her university to its first Final Four since 1993 — something she did last year. What Clark has done is a remarkable feat considering this state’s history of hoops. Basketball gamechangers with Iowa roots include Harrison Barnes, Brenda Frese, Gary Thompson, “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, Fred Hoiberg, Kirk Hinrich, Jennie Baranczyk, Nick Collison, Lynne Lorenzen, Bob Hansen, Jan Jensen and multiple people with the last name of Korver, among others.

The list goes on and on.

“One thing that’s always stuck in my head as I’ve watched Caitlin do her thing is, when I was in elementary school it was the thing to go to the girls state basketball tournament. There was a bracket on every school teacher’s door and it’s a bunch of tiny towns and teams you’ve never even heard of,” Brent Clark, Caitlin’s dad who played basketball and baseball at Division III Simpson College, told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s one element of Iowa that’s unique when it comes to girls and women’s basketball — we have this culture of support dating back to the 1920s; it’s sorta engrained in the state of Iowa.”

6-on-6 legends helped build popularity

Barancyzk, who was raised in Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines, thinks her state gets a bad rap.

“Iowa’s way more progressive than most people give it credit for,” said Barancyzk, the third-year coach of fifth-seeded Oklahoma, who starred at Iowa from 2000-04 and coached at Drake for nine years. “We have these Midwest values of, everyone rolls up their sleeves and works. If you were raised on a farm, you got up and worked, even if you were a girl. I think there’s an element of that in our support of women’s basketball — no one thought you couldn’t do something because you were a girl.”

The way Iowans see it, gender doesn’t hold players back. But location can.

“A lot of people think about growing up in California or New York, where there are so many opportunities for kids,” added Megan Gustafson, the former Iowa All-American who will play this summer with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces. “In the midwest, it’s a little harder to find those opportunities and exposure. You have to fight, claw and scratch your way in. That never-give-up attitude is something a lot of Iowans have.”

That work ethic translates to the court. At Iowa practice in early February, Clark implored 6-foot-3 junior center Sharon Goodman to be “farm strong” when posting up against the Hawkeyes male practice players. As she said this Clark flexed, then winked at Goodman for emphasis. (And yes, Goodman did grow up on a farm.)

For decades, the Iowa girls high school state tournament outdrew the boys tournament. Some of that is because of the long tradition of six-on-six, which might sound now like a plodding, old person’s game. People who played it or sat in the stands watching say it was anything but.

“It was fun, fast, fundamental — there was a lot of excitement in that," Barancykz said. "And as the rest of the country moved to five-on-five, Iowa was really the only place you could find six-on-six.”

Jensen, a six-on-six legend who's now Iowa’s associate head coach, agreed. Jensen led the nation in scoring as a senior in high school, at Elk Horn-Kimballton (66 points per game) and college, at Drake (29.6)

“The detractors are like, ‘Oh people are just catching on now to women’s basketball.’ Well, not here, it’s been a big deal here for awhile,” she said. On her desk is a framed photo of her grandmother, Dorcas “Lottie” Anderson — because she scored a lot of points — MVP of the 1920 Iowa girls state tournament. “This state has always been open to girls being successful."

Iowa finally transitioned to five-on-five in 1993, the second-to-last state to make the switch (Oklahoma did so in 1995). But there are other ways the girls game is still held in high(er) regard. Iowa, for example, is the only state in the U.S. that has two state high school associations, one for boys and one for girls. Kristin Meyer, the head coach at Dowling Catholic, Clark's alma mater, thinks this plays a role in girls basketball being celebrated. Here, they’re never an afterthought, or made to play second fiddle. At the girls state tournament, the welcome banquet features a pink carpet. Getting a picture on it is considered a bucket list moment.

Iowa, Iowa State, Drake and UNI boast plenty of Iowa natives

Fan support translates to the collegiate level, and not just Division I. For 26 consecutive years, the 16-team NAIA women’s championship tournament has been played in Sioux City, often in front of a packed gym. And while Clark and the Hawkeyes have sold out arenas across the Big Ten this year, Iowa State, Drake and Northern Iowa have historically drawn well, too. Another factor: Iowa has no pro sports teams, which means even more time to devote to college programs.

Fans come to watch their own. Of the combined 53 players on the state’s four Division I rosters this season, 43 are from Iowa (25) or border states (18), a staggering number given that Iowa is the 31st most populous state in the nation. And 15 of those Iowans will be in the tournament, with all but UNI in the bracket.

Dickson Jensen is the coach of All Iowa Attack, Clark’s AAU team. Under Jensen, All Iowa Attack has won three titles at the prestigious Nike Nationals AAU tournament — including in 2018, when Clark played — and sent dozens of players on to college hoops. He’s not sure what, if anything, the state is doing differently than others. He does think style of play attracts fans and college coaches, as Iowa teams tend to spread the floor, involve everyone and shoot 3s; he joked they don’t have enough elite athletes to just clear out and play one-on-one.

But most of it, he thinks, is mentality.

“When you put that vision out in front of people and really drive it home, it works," he said. "Maybe if you’d put a vision out about singing we’d have had a lot of successful singers. But here, our kids have seen other kids be successful, so they know they can attain it, too. And when it’s going around the state that Iowa (natives) love playing here in college, the next generation of players want to stay here, too.”

Caitlin Clark says Title IX helped Iowa

Clark, for her part, credits the state’s obsession with girls and women’s basketball to Title IX.

“This university was on the forefront of Title IX, and they’ve always supported women’s athletics,” Clark said, mentioning former Iowa athletics director Dr. Christine Grant, a passionate advocate for gender equity who worked at the school from 1973-2000. “She made women feel valued at this university, whether you were on the field hockey team or basketball team or gymnastics team.”

Clark is 22, part of a generation that polls show doesn’t know much, if anything, about Title IX, the landmark education law that is directly responsible for the explosion in women’s sports participation over the last 50 years. That she knows so much about the legislation and its importance is yet another example that in this state, women’s sports have always been taken seriously.

It helps too, she said, that “there’s a lot of really great talent in the state of Iowa, and a lot of it decides to stay home.” It’s fitting that she’s merely the latest to do that.

And it’s why many believe Clark is the perfect player, from the perfect state, at the perfect time to come along in the women’s game.

Her state has spent the last 100-plus years elevating women’s basketball. If anywhere was going to produce a player who could lift the game nationally, and maybe even worldwide, didn’t it have to be Iowa?

Email Lindsay Schnell at and follow her on social media @Lindsay_Schnell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Caitlin Clark made Iowa basketball bigger than it already was