Thankful to be in her 50th year working at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Connie Claussen is marking Thanksgiving with a round-number gift to the UNO athletic department — $100,000.
UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts was “caught off guard.” Not at her generosity, he said, but at the amount.
“I was personally humbled and honored that Connie would think of our department in this way,” Alberts said. “The success of women's athletics at UNO is a direct result of her sustained, tireless effort.”
Claussen has been a leader in women's athletics before and after the adoption of Title IX, but she also has served all college sports, for men and women. For five years in the 1980s, she sat on the influential NCAA Executive Committee.
She said she decided on the gift about a month ago.
“I'm very fortunate, and UNO has been very good to me,” she said. “So many positive things are happening here, and I just want to be a part of it.”
UNO is hoping to build an arena for hockey, basketball and volleyball, as well as softball and baseball fields. It is also converting the football field (the university dropped the sport) to a soccer pitch.
Claussen said she was glad to make the donation and wouldn't mind if it inspired others to contribute.
She is adept at asking. With the annual UNO Women's Walk, she has helped raise more than $4 million for women's sports since 1986 — starting with $12,000 that first year.
The next Claussen-Leahy Women's Walk — now named for herself and former UNO Athletic Director Don Leahy — will be on April 20, her 74th birthday.
She graduated from the school in 1961 when it was called Omaha University and began teaching physical education there in 1963. In the early 1970s, she started the women's athletic program with four sports — basketball, volleyball, softball and track.
Teams sometimes practiced in World War II-era Quonset huts, leading some people to kiddingly call Claussen the “queen of the Quonsets.” UNO had only one set of uniforms for the team sports, which were passed along from season to season.
Because of that, she said, “we couldn't start a sport until the previous one ended.”
Title IX, the federal regulation that has provided more opportunities to girls and women in sports, was adopted in 1972. But Claussen said the effects weren't felt until the 1980s.
In the meantime, she had coached the UNO softball team to a national championship in 1975 and saw the first scholarships to female athletes — a few received $100 each.
Since then, she said, “things have changed drastically for the better.”
UNO women have won NCAA Division II national championships in volleyball and soccer, and have developed many strong teams and confident young women.
Connie has affected so many female athletes and their families, including my own. (Our daughter Laura played volleyball at UNO two decades ago and married a UNO baseball player.)
Claussen, the longtime coordinator of women's athletics and then associate athletic director, retired as a full-time UNO staffer in 1998 but still works part time for the athletic department. She attends weekly meetings of its executive staff — as well as lots of UNO athletic events.
She credits Chancellor John Christensen and Alberts, the athletic director, with leading UNO into a new era, including a controversial move up to Division I sports. Football and wrestling were dropped.
“I think Trev saved our athletic program,” Claussen said. “We were just about done for. We just got so far behind in money, and morale was down.”
Besides sports, she said, the campus has grown extensively, with strong academics.
In good health, Claussen exercises regularly and stays active. Her late mother, Sylvia Claussen — known affectionately around UNO as “Mrs. C” — died two years ago at 99.
Connie hopes to be around as long as her mom, and to meet and watch Maverick athletes for years to come.
“I feel blessed,” she said, “to still be with the UNO athletic family and the student-athletes.”
The Quonsets were removed long ago, but Connie Claussen still reigns as the queen of sports at UNO.
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