A Life Remembered - Joanne Bracker

A Life Remembered - Joanne Bracker

Monday, March 6, 2023

To understand the magnitude of Joanne Bracker’s impact during her coaching career at Midland University, all you had to do was take a look at her yearly Christmas card collection.

“We had a bulletin board at our house where mom kept all her Christmas cards,” Troy Bracker, her son, said. “If we had 100 cards on that board, 90 of them would be from former players, including some who might have only played for her a year or two.”

The longtime Midland women’s basketball coach passed away on February 1 at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer. Her life, legacy, and career will be honored during a Celebration of Life on Saturday, March 11 from 2-5 p.m. in the Wikert Event Center Lobby, overlooking the court that bears her name. The public is invited to share stories and celebrate the life of Coach Bracker during the open-house event. Attendees are encouraged to wear Midland apparel.

In her 42 years as women’s basketball coach, professor, advisor, camp instructor, and many other titles, Bracker impacted the lives of countless individuals whom she crossed paths with. That impact resonated far beyond the basketball court and into the lives of her former players and students.

“I am the person I am today, and have been able to succeed in many different aspects of my life, because of Coach Bracker,” said Mary Jo (Reilly) Giesselmann, ‘84. “She was an amazing woman and we’ve lost a wonderful coach, mentor, and more than anything, friend.”

The numbers associated with Bracker’s coaching career tell the story of one of the most successful women’s basketball coaches in the history of the sport. She accumulated 742 wins during her 42-year career, making her the winningest coach in NAIA history at the time of her retirement in 2012. She guided the Warriors to eight NAIA National Tournament appearances, including a fourth-place finish in 1985. The Warriors finished nationally ranked in 13 of those seasons, ranking as high as No. 3 following the 1982-83 season. 

Bracker was inducted into the inaugural class of the National Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, and is also a member of both the Midland University and Dana College (her alma mater) Athletic Halls of Fame. She was an assistant coach in the 1989 Olympic Festival and was a member of the Olympic selection committee in 1992 and 1996. Bracker also served as national president of NAIA Women's Basketball Coaches Association.

When Midland University started its women’s basketball program in 1970, Bracker was appointed as the first coach. Women’s athletic programs were new to many universities at that time, and Bracker worked tirelessly to make sure the program, and her players, would be successful. “She did whatever it took,” Troy said. “There weren’t a lot of women’s teams at that time, so she was scheduling games against bigger schools like UNL, UNO, and Kearney State (now UNK) just so they could find games.

“They didn’t have buses or vans for her team to use, so she would survey her players to see who had the most reliable cars so they could drive to the game. She also had to take care of hiring officials, and I remember her bringing home the players’ uniforms after the game to get them washed and ready for the next game.”

Bracker was instrumental in helping the women’s game advance throughout the years. Ann (Albrecht) Prince, ‘91, a former player and assistant coach for Bracker, remembers her as someone who always looked out for the best interest of the sport, and her program. “She loved the game and wanted to continue to advance the game,” Prince said. “She fought for equal opportunities in the sport and against the gender bias that still remains prevalent within the sport.”

Prince had the opportunity to not only play for Bracker, but was next to her on the bench for 14 years as an assistant. That experience has helped transform Prince into one of the most successful high school coaches in Nebraska, having coached the  Elkhorn North girls to three consecutive Class B state championships. 

“It was awesome to have such a knowledgeable and successful coach as my mentor to help me learn and grow in the coaching profession,” she said. “She was an amazing teacher who had very high expectations and took the subject matter very seriously. She had a major influence on my life and made me a better basketball player, person, student-athlete, coach, and teacher.”

What resonated most with Prince was Bracker’s ability to pay attention to every small detail in coaching. “She always did things the right way,” Prince said. “She didn’t use gimmicks to get ahead. She taught the fundamentals, how to play man-to-man defense, and get your kids to work hard and play together.”

That attention to detail was what often separated her teams from their opponents. Troy said his mom’s organizational skills were always on display, even away from the basketball court. “Her practices were very detailed and when she organized basketball trips that involved so many people, everything would be put in chronological order down to the last minute,” Troy said. “My dad and I would joke that those organizational skills often spilled over into our vacations. We would always have lunch at a certain time, or have to be at the hotel by a certain time.”

Bracker’s teams were battle-tested and often played their best in the biggest games. She also wasn’t afraid to push her players when necessary, something that became evident early in her career. “Her incredible coaching ability started with her first team,” Karen Moeller, ‘71, said. “Our only loss that season was to Wayne State. She came in after that game and told us we played “like a bunch of clowns.” We didn’t lose another game the rest of the season, including a rematch with Wayne State. Even though I only played for Coach Bracker my senior year, the impact she had on my life is immeasurable. I am thankful to have had her as my coach, and a lifelong friend.”

Her dedication for every individual to succeed went beyond her work as a coach. “She was an advisor to many students over the years and she took pride in helping students have a good college experience and get where they needed to be,” Troy said. “I remember being a kid and hanging out in the gym while mom was teaching a dance class. She was always willing to fill in if someone needed a partner.”

Troy said his mom was a “quiet competitor” who might not have shown a lot of emotion on the outside, but had a competitive drive on the inside. “She always wanted to make sure they put the best product on the floor,” he said. “If they played their best, and lost, she could live with that. The only time she was disappointed is if she felt they didn’t play well, or if there was something she could have done differently.”

If their performance was less than satisfactory for Coach Bracker, they knew immediately when she walked into practice the next day.  “I do remember several players telling me that anytime mom showed up to practice wearing a black sweatsuit, they knew that was going to be a hard practice,” Troy said.

Maintaining relationships with players beyond graduation was vital to Bracker. Troy said it was not uncommon for Bracker to get visits from former players, or attend sporting events that involved former players, or their families. As busy as her life was as a coach, she also made sure her presence was felt as a mother, and grandmother. 

“I was involved in athletics as a kid and she always would get to whatever events of mine she could,” he said. “I remember how proud she was of her three grandkids, and was very good at supporting them in whatever they were involved with. My daughter, Shelby, was a track athlete. She would tell me the story that after my mom got sick, my dad would position his truck at the meet so they had a view of the finish line. Shelby would finish the race and could see my mom watching the race through binoculars.”

Her commitment to Midland University was unparalleled. Coaching for 42 years at one place is rare territory, and Midland unveiled how much her time was appreciated by placing her name on the court at the Wikert Center following her retirement. “I know it was something she didn’t expect, but was very appreciative of,” Troy said. “I think it was a recognition for what she did, not only for the basketball program, but for the athletic department as a whole. She received interest from bigger programs over the years, but she was happy at Midland.”