Joanne Bracker was driving the team van when she heard snickering.
Bracker was head coach of the women’s basketball team at what’s now called Midland University. The team spent the night in a hotel, before heading to a tournament game. En route to the game, Bracker learned a player had taken a pillow from the hotel.
“That van turned around so fast, it would make your head snap,” said former player and decades-long friend Eileen Troy.
Some coaches might have thought pillow snatching was no big deal.
But Bracker’s team returned to the hotel and the young woman who took the pillow had to go into the building — by herself — and explain what happened.
“A lot of lessons were learned from who Joanne Bracker was and what she stood for,” said Troy during a Celebration of Life honoring a coach, remembered for 42 years of loving, nurturing and guiding players.
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On Saturday, the Wikert Event Center lobby was filled with former students, players, colleagues and community members who gathered for an open house to share memories of a woman whom players said instilled integrity on and off the court and whose lessons and support still impact people today.
Bracker was 77 when she died Feb. 1 after a battle with cancer. During her MU career, she compiled an overall record of 742 wins versus 403 losses, making her the winningest coach in NAIA history when she retired in 2012.
She guided the Warriors to eight NAIA National Tournament appearances, including a fourth-place finish in 1985. She received numerous honors, including induction into the inaugural class of the National Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Bracker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1970, the same year she became the MU coach.
“Joanne was light years ahead of her time in the world of girls’ basketball,” said Troy, a 1976 MU graduate. “She took a group of young women, not much older than herself, and won a state championship in the state of Nebraska — in her first year of coaching (1970-71) — with a 17-1 record.
“This was the beginning of a coaching legacy that put Midland athletics on the map.”
Troy was 18 years old when she came from a small town in Upstate New York — some 1,400 miles — to Midland in 1972. Bracker was the first person Troy met in Fremont and what Troy describes as a “golden, lifelong friendship” began.
Bracker had many warm, long-lasting friendships.
“She would always want to know what she could do for you,” Troy said. “She went out of her way for everybody she met.”
Kari Kramme-Wragge, a 1983 MU grad, recalls Bracker’s kind-heartedness.
“She was just phenomenal — the kindest, warmest person you could ever meet,” Kramme-Wragge said. “You wanted to work hard for her. She was respected by all of us and she’s left a big hole in our hearts now that she’s gone.”
Players recalled how Bracker combined basketball trips with fun activities, like an outing to the zoo or to see Christmas lights.
Kramme-Wragge remembers when Bracker took players on a January 1980 bus trip to California, where they played five teams in a West Coast basketball event.
“We got to go to Disneyland and our parents got to come if they could pay their way and her parents came and we had such a great time,” Kramme-Wragge said. “Great memories.”
Kramme-Wragge played the center position and was part of the team that went to the NAIA National Championship Tournament in 1983.
“We got pretty far, but we lost in the second round, I think, and it was just devastating to lose, because it was the end of my career,” she said.
Yet it wasn’t the last of her opportunities.
Bracker encouraged Kramme-Wragge to try out for the 1984 Olympics during the summer of 1983.
“I did not make it,” Kramme-Wragge said. “They only had two spots, but it was an honor to be asked to try out. It was a lifetime experience.”
Jill Hayden Lamprecht, a 2004 Midland grad and former point guard, recalls a special opportunity Bracker gave her.
Hayen Lamprecht needed to make just one more basket to break the record for scoring the most points in a game.
The MU team was ahead by many points in a matchup with Nebraska Wesleyan. When this happens, coaches of the wining team typically exchange those who started the game with other players.
During that game, all the other MU starters were out except Hayden Lamprecht.
“In a time out, she was making up a play for me so I would score the final basket to break the record — which I did,” Hayden Lamprecht said.
She recalls her feelings.
“It means everything to me,” Hayden Lamprecht said. “It got my name in the record books. The crowd went wild. I had no idea what was going on (at the time). It was a very heartfelt moment that she thought of me and wanted me to have that accomplishment.”
Kendra Gomez, a 2007 MU grad, spent a year as an assistant coach, and was one of the event’s speakers.
“We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how,” Gomez said, before emphasizing how Bracker’s life lessons, including the importance of hard work and respect, have remained with former players.
“Those lessons off the court taught us life is bigger than basketball,” Gomez said. “She didn’t only want us to be great basketball players, but great people, leaders, moms, teammates and friends. I can guarantee she wrote a letter of recommendation for most people in this room — even if you only played for her one or two years — she always wanted to help bring out the best in each individual.”
Gomez said one of the biggest lessons she learned from Bracker was at the end of her senior year. Gomez applied to pharmacy school, but wasn’t accepted.
“Coach Bracker was there to pick me up and help me out,” Gomez said. “She gave me the opportunity to be an assistant coach.”
It was one of Gomez’s favorite years at MU.
“I got to see the time, energy and hard work she put into coaching – more than I realized as a player,” Gomez said. “Coach Bracker, Mr. B (Bracker’s husband, Leon) and myself would analyze film hours after practice – sometimes ending the night at Village Inn for a late-night breakfast.”
Gomez will always treasure that year, because it gave her a new appreciation for hard work and helped her focus on what she needed to — and helped pave the way for her future.
“It was because of the chance Coach Bracker gave me that I was able to be accepted into pharmacy school the following year,” Gomez said. “She was the first person I told when I found out.”
Today, Gomez is a registered pharmacist in Omaha.
Several former team members became teachers or coaches.
Tiffany Becker, a 2002 graduate, is one example.
“I’m a P.E. teacher,” said Becker, adding, “She helped me get my first job.”
Becker applied for a job in Dodge. Bracker knew the woman who was school principal at that time.
“(Bracker) called and gave me a good reference and I ended up getting the job,” Becker said. “I’m still there today. I’m pretty lucky.”
Event attendees said Bracker had a very supportive husband and the couple opened their home to players, students and their families.
“Anybody and everybody was welcome in their home,” Eileen Troy said. “It was a way of life for them.”
Bracker’s granddaughter, Shelby, said her grandma loved cooking and baking. She peeled oranges and cut the crusts off bread for her grandchildren, no matter their age.
“She loved to love others,” Shelby said. “Her way of recharging was gathering with people she loved.”
Shelby said her grandmother would have loved the Celebration of Life and many attendees said they’ll miss their mentor.
“I will miss all the hand-written Christmas cards, the occasional messages asking about my family,” Gomez said. “I will miss the woman who was and always is bigger than basketball. We’re all very fortunate to get to have her as a coach, mentor and friend and I know her memory lives on in so many people.”