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Legendary volleyball coach Teri Clemens recalls Title IX triumph

By Sam King

NCAA.org

Even though NCAA Division I softball coaches were asking Teri Clemens to play at their school, she saw more opportunities elsewhere.

“As many offers as I had in Division I, I knew the grass was not greener,” Clemens said. “It was not the division but rather than the class of the program.”

And so Clemens enrolled at Northeast Missouri State University, now Truman State University, and went on to earn varsity letters in three sports.

Clemens says she knew in fourth grade that it was her calling was to be a volleyball coach. At Truman, she had the opportunity to participate in multiple sports and did so, playing four years of field hockey and two years each of softball and tennis.

While working toward a degree in health and physical education, Clemens also did her studying outside the classroom. As a student-athlete, she noted the varying coaching styles and philosophies during her athletics career and used those to become one of the most successful volleyball coaches in NCAA history at Washington University in St. Louis.

For her accomplishments as a student-athlete and her subsequent success as a coach, Clemens has been named one of 48 former NCAA Division II student-athletes selected among the 23 Division II conferences across the country for the 40th Anniversary Tribute Team. The makeup of the group is based not only on athletics accomplishment but also character and achievement outside the sports arena after graduation.

After Clemens’ freshman season with the Bulldogs, Athletics Director Ken Gardner called her into his office and told her she was going to be the first female athlete on scholarship at Truman, at a time when Title IX was still new to the world.

“I know now that it is a bigger deal than I knew then,” Clemens said. “I was a very serious athlete. That was in 1978 that I graduated college. I was every bit or more serious than the athletes of today.”

Clemens became one of the most accomplished athletes in school history, leading the softball team with a .393 batting average as a freshman and doubling as the team’s pitcher.

After her sophomore year, in which she hit .314, she moved to the tennis courts to take in a different coaching perspective and went 20-16 in two seasons to help the squad win an MAIAW championship in 1978.

She was Truman’s 1978 Female Athlete of the Year before embarking on a coaching journey.

At 5 feet 4 inches, Clemens was not the ideal mold of a college volleyball player, but it didn’t keep her from returning to the court after her athletics career was over.

She coached Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis to Missouri high school state championships in 1982, 1983 and 1984 and compiled a 119-12 record before moving on to Division III Washington University in St. Louis.

Success followed her to the college ranks, where she won Division III national titles in 1989 and then six straight from 1991-96.

A pulmonary condition forced her into retirement in 1999 after she battled constant trips to the hospital and being on a respirator in the final years of her coaching career. Her .873 winning percentage remains the highest in Division III history. She is the winningest coach in collegiate volleyball history, regardless of division.

“It was a very difficult thing to leave coaching,” Clemens said. “I found new life writing books on volleyball. I rebounded fast and stayed in touch.”

Clemens’ bestselling book, “Get with It, Girls!: Life Is Competition,” offers instruction to young women on becoming effective, well-rounded competitors throughout all walks of life.

Clemens could have attended the University of Missouri or moved to Florida and had a stellar Division I softball career.

But coaching was her calling, and being allowed to participate in multiple sports – which Division II Truman allowed her to do – put Clemens on the right path to success with her true passion.

“The fact that I played multiple sports made me a better coach,” Clemens said. “I am really fortunate. I think the NCAA provided me with more opportunities than most, even though I went in when there wasn’t much opportunity for women.”