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By Randy York
The Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) Monday announced an historical hire of a woman who knew how to make history as a University Nebraska student-athlete, and she's carried that pioneering spirit into athletic administration. Husker hurdler/sprinter Rhonda Blanford-Green is returning to Lincoln as the NSAA's executive director, overseeing a staff of 12 and a budget of $3.5 million while serving 310 member schools in 21 separate state championship events.
Blanford-Green is the first NSAA executive director hired from outside Nebraska and the first with previous experience as an athletic administrator at the state level. She also appears to be the first African-American woman to lead any state high school association in the United States. In other words, she's a modern-day Jackie Robinson, and that registers no surprise from the man who recruited her when she was a high school star at Aurora, Colo., coached her at Nebraska and has stayed in touch with her, even when she coached at Wyoming and became a key leader in the Colorado High School Activities Association for 16 years.
Shares Major Milestone with a Legend
"We've only had two athletes in Nebraska history win five conference championship gold medals in the same year," Nebraska Head Track and Field Coach Gary Pepin said Tuesday. "Merlene Ottey was one of them, and Rhonda Blanford-Green was the other. She was really a special athlete and an even more special person ... very talented ... tremendous competitor ... hard worker ... great personality ... very, very funny and just loaded with leadership ... never afraid to express her feelings or opinions on anything.
"Rhonda's the kind of person that you're immediately attracted to because she always had a big smile when she went about her business," Pepin said. "She just has that warmth for people. That's why she was so well respected by her peers as well as her coaches. She definitely had a competitive edge to her, yet was a really, really fun person. She had what I call a championship mindset, so I can see why she's making history with this job. Anyone would love to have her on their staff, including me."
Christine Bullard, retired athletic director for the Jefferson County School District in suburban Denver, reinforces everything Pepin said about Blanford-Green. "Rhonda is a star," Bullard said. "She has matured into a highly successful and respected administrator at our state office. She had an amazing mentor working under our commissioner in her first few years. She's brought about many positive changes to our state activities and athletics programs, including playoff structures, coaching education and spirit programs."
She Sprinted, She Hurdled, She Danced
Now seems the appropriate time to point out that in addition to Blanford-Green's accomplishments as a hurdler/sprinter at Nebraska, she was a member of the Husker Dance Team, so we know where all that charisma comes from. "She's also an amazing fund-raiser," Bullard said. "She's outspoken, but always with facts and figures behind her opinions. She researches her subject and always presents a compelling argument to support her beliefs. Her energy level is limitless and her sense of humor delightful. She serves on two national committees and has a strong national presence."
Bullard says Blanford-Green has been instrumental in bridging major gaps and issues with Colorado's State Legislature. She championed information-sharing breakfasts to help educate legislators about the association. "Bottom line," Bullard said, "she's an experienced administrator with strong leadership skills, and she's highly respected both within our state and nationally. Nebraska's in for a real treat when she gets there."
Blanford-Green's administrative accomplishments match her athletic achievements. She was an 18-time Big Eight champion as a Husker. She won 12 of those titles outdoors and six indoors. She won 12 individual gold medals and six relay golds. She still holds three individual NU school records and is part of four school-record relay teams. She was a rare, four-year undefeated Big Eight champion and a 10-time All-American.
Pepin's Smile Will Be as Big as Hers
Yes, Blanford-Green missed making the 1984 and '88 Olympic teams, but those "failures" just brought her two steps closer to the success she's had as an administrator.
Now that the NSAA has found the right leader to chart its future course, the university that helped mold her and the coach who helped lead her stand proud together, welcoming Rhonda Blanford-Green back to Lincoln.
Since the distance from her new office to her old outdoor track will be less than a mile when she begins her new job in July, she can walk, sprint or hurdle her way back home. So whenever Blanford-Green visits Pepin, she won't be the only one with a smile. A proud coach will wear one just as big and every bit as wide as hers.
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Voices from Husker Nation
Nice piece on Rhonda. A great hire by the NSAA. I'm sure there are those who will see it as a risky move. They would be wrong. I was announcing meets when Rhonda (Blanford-Green) and Merlene (Ottey) and that whole sprint crew was steamrolling the conference. They would always have the hair done, the makeup on, and then go out and cut out the hearts of the competition. In spite of the great personality, there was always that steely-eyed resolve in Rhonda. Skip Morris, Lincoln, Nebraska
I'm a Husker fan and don't really follow high school sports in the state of Nebraska, but it sounds to me like the great state of Nebraska just hired a female superstar. I can't help but think, if she's as sharp as it sounds, Nebraska high school football will benefit from her leadership. And I'm dead serious when I say that. If she's a Husker at heart, Nebraska will benefit somehow, some way. Congratulations, Rhonda, and welcome back to Nebraska! Steve Shannon, Chicago, Illinois