By Joey Johnston
TAMPA (Florida Sports Wire) – For 15 seasons — including eight as the head coach — Claire Lessinger was dedicated to USF volleyball.
But she has found a new life with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, serving as its vice president of events. It all comes full circle this weekend when she oversees the Road 2 Tampa Bay Volleyball Invitational, which will be held at downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena and USF’s Yuengling Center.
The field includes the USF Bulls, the No. 8-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions, the No. 11 Florida Gators and the No. 20 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (coached by Michelle Collier, a USF Athletic Hall of Famer).
The season-opening event is a prelude to December, when USF and the TBSC host the NCAA Volleyball Final Four at Amalie Arena.
“Claire was an amazing assistant coach when I played at USF and she is really doing amazing things for the Tampa Bay sports scene,’’ USF coach Jolene Shepardson said. “In both cases, she has been a person who really cares and does such high-quality work.’’
At first, when Lessinger left coaching at USF, where she led the program from 2004-12, she was uneasy. Volleyball had been her life, including her days as Tampa Tribune Athlete of the Year at Clearwater Central Catholic, then her stint as a University of Florida player.
“I think every coach would tell you that when a season wraps, whether it’s good or bad, the thought comes in of whether you want to keep doing it,’’ Lessinger said. “You’re often burned out and exhausted. Then you get recharged. You’re so excited for the next incoming class. It happens cyclically every year and you get totally fired up for the next season.
“When you start thinking seriously about stepping away, then you actually do it, it can be very scary. It’s such a hard decision because it’s what you know. And you wonder if you’re going to have the same skill-set for something else.’’
With the TBSC, Lessinger has found her true voice.
And that has been noticed by Mary Wise, her head coach at Florida, who is beginning her 33rd season with the Gators.
“Claire is one of those connectors, one of those teammates who makes everyone around her into better players, one of those people who makes it a joyful experience because that’s just her personality,’’ Wise said. “I think it has transferred beautifully to her role with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
“I have to believe that people enjoy working with her because of that enthusiasm and work ethic. When she walks into a room, you know there will be laughs. But she’s also going to get after it, just like she did as a player, just like she did as a coach. When there’s something to be done, you still see her tenacity and competitiveness.’’
Last fall, as the TBSC orchestrated a site visit for another nationally acclaimed event, it seemed like Lessinger was everywhere at once, handling last-second details, shaking hands, stumping for her city, all of it delivered with her trademark smile and can-do attitude.
“Do you see Claire?’’ said Tampa mayor Jane Castor, standing nearby. “She’s pretty good stuff.’’
She has been a key figure in Tampa Bay’s successful presentation of Super Bowl 55, the College Football Playoff Championship Game, the NCAA Women’s Final Four and the NCAA Frozen Four, among other events.
“Truthfully, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done without Claire,’’ TBSC executive director Rob Higgins said. “No detail is too small. She takes great pride in making sure it’s done properly. She’s our point guard. She puts people in the right places for success. She never takes any of the credit. But she’s right in the middle of everything we do.’’
Through her execution of premier events, Lessinger has become vital in another pursuit — the training, encouragement and empowerment of women in sports.
Lessinger said she wasn’t that aware of Title IX, the federal law that opened the door for girls and women’s sports, when she grew up in Clearwater. She was mostly a tomboy and it wasn’t at all unusual for her to play in games against the guys.
At CCC, she felt she had the proper opportunities to pursue her sports, which led to a scholarship at UF, a development that surprised her academic-minded father. He had no idea that Claire’s obsession with athletics could open such doors.
But as Lessinger became a coach and as her TBSC responsibilities have increased, she has seen the need to build a base of female representation to show young girls that it’s not only possible to become a player or a coach, but other opportunities exist as well. How about athletic director? How about commissioner? How about jobs in marketing, broadcasting or sales?
“There are no limits to what girls and women can do now in sports,’’ Lessinger said. “That’s our message.’’
The message is spread through the TBSC’s “Beyond Series,’’ which focuses on assembling and empowering local women of influence while they support Tampa Bay’s major sporting events. It’s also a centerpiece of Tampa Bay’s Women in Sports and Events (WISE) chapter, where Lessinger is a vice president.
During last summer’s 50-year anniversary of Title IX, Lessinger coordinated women’s sports programming in accord with ESPN and Spectrum that helped to honor local athletes as “Title IX Trailblazers.’’
Lessinger’s current obsession is hosting the Road 2 Tampa Bay Volleyball Invitational and preparing for the NCAA Volleyball Final Four. Last December, she was in Omaha, Nebraska, as part of a contingent that observed and gathered information at the NCAA Volleyball Championships. Tampa Bay, Amalie Arena and host institution USF are now on the clock.
Tampa Bay last hosted the event in 2009, when Lessinger was USF’s head coach.
“I got to serve on the NCAA Volleyball Local Organizing Committee, so that was my first look at behind the curtain in sports events,’’ Lessinger said. “I was fascinated by all of it. Rob (Higgins) and I maintained a great relationship and stayed in touch. One thing led to another and suddenly, I shifted my focus to a new career.
“I’m not coaching or mentoring young athletes any more. But there are so many similarities. We have a Game Day, Everyday mentality here, so it’s recruiting and selling Tampa. We’re in the middle of every sport you could imagine. I feel like there were things that didn’t change that much. Becoming an advocate for women in sports wasn’t a goal I had pondered, but it’s a huge part of me now and I’m excited to see the progress.’’
Lessinger, TBSC’s first full-time female staff member, said she found an ally in Higgins.
“I brought a different dynamic, but it was embraced from the beginning,’’ said Lessinger, whose husband, Mike, is a former college volleyball coach (they have two sons). “Everything I’ve been able to do is a direct reflection of great leadership. Rob and everyone here is committed to women getting opportunities in the business of sports. I’ve been able to help advance the women helping women movement in our community.
“Now it has become one of our trademarks, something we are known for. We build it into our bids. It’s an added benefit to event organizers because of the brand and audience we’ve been able to build. We work with everyone from C-suite representatives to entry level positions to students. We hope to continue seeing these things all over the country.’’
Lessinger said she’s aware when she’s the only female at the table, but the TBSC’s supportive environment has made that a non-issue.
“I have heard horror stories and I’m sensitive to those, but I have not really experienced that in my professional life,’’ Lessinger said. “I think we have it great here in Tampa Bay. I love our community and I’m passionate about finding new ways to bridge gaps and create pathways. Even though I haven’t had many roadblocks, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to be done and progress to be made for women in sports. I’m excited for what the next chapters are going to bring.’’
The volleyball events particularly hit home for Lessinger.
“This is a special moment in time for me,’’ Lessinger said. “I’m so excited for the opportunity our community has and we’re working to make these events the absolute best they can be.’’