The First Women's Program

Connie Claussen

Title IX was passed 50 years ago.

Sure, we still have a long ways to go, but when I think about how far we’ve come with gender equality in athletics, well, that’s still something to be very proud of.

I was teaching physical education at UNO when the Commissioner of the Omaha Softball Association contacted me about starting the Women’s College World Series in 1969.

At the time, I didn’t necessarily think about the bigger picture — I was just doing my job and wanted to help progress the sport of softball.

Back then, there were no sanctioned sports for women at UNO. So, we didn’t have our own softball team. But I thought to myself, “How could we possibly host an event without having a team of our own to compete?”

There was no funding, but there was definitely a ton of interest.

So, we looked into launching our own softball program.

Today, I’m beyond proud that this effort eventually led to the first women’s program at UNO.

Short miles and hamburgers

I played summer softball and had a connection with some of the players that attended UNO. I spoke with them, invited a few others, and before we knew it, we were able to get a team together.

Everything just came together on the fly. 

We didn’t even really practice, nor did we have any money for transportation, equipment, or anything else really. I even borrowed uniforms and softball equipment from my summer club coach just to be somewhat competition-ready. It was obviously a bit of an uphill battle, but in retrospect, it was all so worth it. 

We ended up losing our first two games, but honestly, this was never about winning and losing. 

It was about the beginning of women’s athletics at UNO. 

And by 1971, we had an actual softball team.

Keep in mind — this was still before Title IX and with pretty much no budget. We would only compete against Lincoln or Fremont because the financial situation simply didn’t allow for anything else.

And when Title IX was passed in 1972, it’s not like things changed overnight. It probably took another five to six years before we really started to see some movement.

When we won the DII national championship in 1975, for example, I actually had to pay out of my own pocket to put a sign up by Main Street that said “UNO’s National Champions.”

Slowly but surely, however, things started to fall into place. Chancellor Del Weber and athletic director Don Leahy were both major influences in helping push things in the right direction. 

We added basketball, volleyball, and then track and field.

Change we’d only dreamt about was slowly unfolding before our eyes.

We ended up losing our first two games, but honestly, this was never about winning and losing. It was about the beginning of women’s athletics at UNO. And by 1971, we had an actual softball team.

Not done yet

We went from no sanctioned sports for women to all of these programs suddenly rolling in and receiving funding.

It’s easy to forget the massive amount of volunteers that stepped up way before things got going. In the beginning, Title IX was just some hopeful thought off in the distance. Sure, we heard it would make things easier and we’d be able to do much more.

But there were never any guarantees, you know?

We had to keep making our own way just in case things didn’t turn out as expected. Looking in the rearview is a great way to appreciate everything out in front. You look back on those moments of uncertainty and see everything that’s been made possible now, and it really is amazing.

But we’re obviously not across the finish line yet.

There’s still plenty of work to do.

I think one of the biggest problems for women’s athletics continues to be that they don’t get enough publicity. I mean, it’s kind of hard to root for a team if you don’t know when they’re competing or who these athletes really are.

But there’s obviously some great progress, too, when you look at success stories like the Women’s College World Series. They’ve grown that into a wonderful national tournament that attracts a ton of media coverage.

So, what’s happened to softball, and many other sports for that matter, is incredible.

I’m just hoping we will continue to stay on that track.

The ones that paved the way

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that’s exactly what will happen if we continue to push things forward. We can’t just sit back and say, “Okay, we’ve made it this far, so we’re good now.”

Back then, we used to play a tape during our annual banquets, for example, that would show how far women’s athletics have come and what it was like during the early days of Title IX. I think it’s important for every athlete to recognize and appreciate the opportunities they’re given today.

I can’t express how grateful I am for all of the student-athletes that helped pave the way. It wasn’t easy when we started, but they never complained. They were just happy being there and competing.

For everything they’ve done for the university, words can’t describe how special that is to me.

Title IX’s 50 years that have come and gone have been far greater than anything we ever thought possible when this all started.

My only hope is that we can celebrate the past, while also working to improve the future.

Let’s make these next 50 years even better than the first.