In one summer, two of the most storied leaders in the history of USF athletics announced they would leave the university.
Within the span of a week, men’s tennis coach Don Barr and volleyball coach Claire Lessinger announced their resignations. Though Barr’s announcement was not a complete surprise, given his lengthy tenure, Lessinger’s announcement came as a shock to those who were not aware of the struggle she had been facing.
Her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
“We found out about the diagnosis in early May,” Lessinger said. “So I kind of took four weeks to get through the plan of action. I was actually coping with it for a full month. A lot of thought went into this. I’m in a profession I’ve been really passionate about, and it’s one where you have to give it your all. With what’s going on, what I came to feel is that I didn’t have what I needed emotionally and physically.”
For Lessinger, who had been at USF for 13 years, the announcement of her mother’s health struck as deja vu. This is the second time in her coaching career that her mother is battling cancer. Her earlier experience, Lessinger said, helped her make the decision to step down.
“My mother fought breast cancer a few years back, and I had decided to keep coaching that season,” she said. “I was really just distracted, and I wasn’t very available that season. I wasn’t able to give everything I should have. I knew what I had to do this time.”
Looking back at a productive career with USF, which included 101 wins and a spot on the Big East Volleyball Coaches Association, Lessinger said that everything seemed to fall in place perfectly to set up her time with the Bulls.
“There was a fortunate amount of circumstances that got me to USF,” she said. “I had a short stint at Boston College because a friend of mine got the head coaching job. My family is from Tampa, so I moved back to town and luckily an assistant position opened up. I eventually moved up to recruiting coordinator and served in all three capacities before taking over as head coach.”
Lessinger got an opportunity that many coaches dream of one season after grabbing the head-coaching job. After a 9-20 season as a member of the Conference USA in 2004, Lessinger and the Bulls got the opportunity to move to the Big East Conference, an opportunity that Lessinger said she still values.
“It was just another one of those amazing opportunities that just fell into my lap,” she said. “We were doing good things in Conference USA, and we got a chance to move up to tougher competition, which was a dream situation. It was just so challenging and so motivating.”
Though Lessinger helped turn the young program into a yearly contender, her value may have been best seen off the hardwood floors. Her emphasis on the “student” in “student athlete” allowed her to develop strong people as well as strong players.
“It’s really about the playing experience and about balance,” she said. “We want to instill that in the athletes — have them know the priority of academics and athletics, but also that they are people and they need lives and social lives. I really feel like college is the best four or five years of your life, so you should embrace all that you get, value the level of athletic competition, but also embrace the academic part.”
According to current USF volleyball player Kayla Walton, Lessinger’s emphasis on hard work and balance helped Walton create her foundation as a student athlete. Entering her third year, the junior right-side hitter said she cherishes everything Lessinger provided in the first two years of her college career.
“Personally, I think Claire really pushed everyone to their highest potential,” Walton said. “Her big thing was effort, because without that we wouldn’t of been successful. It is something that applies to all aspects of life and one of the most valuable things I will forever carry on with me.”
After 13 years with the team, Lessinger leaves the program in the hands of former Eckerd coach Courtney Draper.
As for Lessinger, she said she won’t be returning to the coaching landscape in the future.
“At this point, I think it was a crossroads,” she said. “When you make a decision like this, you can’t look back. I was fortunate and blessed to have (Athletic Director Doug Woolard) and an administration that was so supportive, and I’m excited for them. They’ll be getting someone who’ll pick this thing right up and get going. I’m at peace with my decision, and I’m not really reflecting on it. I think I have a future in something else.”