There are those who are characterized by records, achievements or glory on the athletic field; and while Don Leahy has all of these accolades, he perhaps more than anyone in Omaha history epitomizes the soul of sport within the city. It is hard to quantify this meaning, other than to say that when asked to name the most influential person in the last fifty years of Omaha athletics, Don Leahy is usually at the top of the list. Few have impacted so many individuals and institutions from high school to the college ranks, touched so many young people with their continued work in the community or helped grow Omaha as a sports city to the point where it is the home for several national and collegiate championships. One sports write quipped the Omaha Sports Hall of Fame should be named for Leahy, and for all of his contributions to the betterment of athletics and society, this honor would not be ill suited.
Leahy began his storied career as an athlete at Omaha Creighton Prep High School before moving on to Marquette University, where he stared as quarterback. Leahy put up quality numbers on solid Golden Avalanche squads, leading the team in points after touchdown in both 1950 and 1951, being rewarded by selection to play in the annual Blue-Grey College All-Star game in 1951. Directly after his playing career ended, Leahy returned to Omaha and became football coach of the his Alma Matter Creighton Prep, where over the next twenty years he would transform the Junior Jays into one of the all-time great dynasties in Nebraska high school history. Prep would win eight state championships under Leahy’s tenure, the second most by any coach in state history, and begin a tradition that would lead to nine more state titles under Leahy‘s successor, Tom Jaworski. Leahy won 118 games at Prep and his teams amassed a .787 winning percentage.
In 1972, Leahy left Creighton Prep to take over director of coliseum activities at Ak-Sar-Ben, at the time, one of the premier horse racing and entertainment facilities in the nation. However, the allure of championing young people and building programs had not left Leahy, and in 1974 he took over as athletic director at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where over the next eleven years Leahy would modernize the program and lead several of the athletic teams to the pinnacle of success. Leahy was instrumental in guiding the program from the NAIA to the NCAA Division II level and into the powerhouse North Central Conference (NCC). The Mavericks football program enjoyed one of the most successful stretches in their history, with the hiring of coach Sandy Buda (who would go onto post a .632 winning percentage), as UNO would make it all the way to NCAA Division II National Semi-Finals in 1984. In 1979, the Maverick basketball team won their first-ever NCC conference championship, and would ranked as high as 9th nationally in 1981 and 12th in 1984, when UNO won another NCC title. The accomplishment on the fields of play helped lead to prosperity off of them, as Leahy began UNO’s modern sports booster and fundraising efforts with the creation of the UNO Mav Club and the UNO Athletic Hall of Fame, which contributed greatly to the University’s ability to upgrade the football stadium and field house and towards Maverick’s popularity growth in the region
In 1985, Leahy left UNO to take over as athletic director at Creighton, where he again helped guide program and facility improvements and helped position the Blue Jays for their most successful stretch in the school’s sports history. Leahy helped resurrect the men’s basketball program with the hiring of Tony Barone, who would be named Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Coach of the Year twice and lead the Jays to one of their best seasons ever in 1989. Behind perhaps its most charismatic team, Creighton won the MVC Championship and played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years. Arguably Leahy’s most successful hire ever was Creighton Men’s Soccer Coach Bob Warming, who has won a total of 348 career games, guided Creighton to eleven MVC and MVC tournament championships and won several coach of the year honors. Leahy also oversaw a revival in the Blue Jay baseball program, who reached an NCAA Regional for the first time in their history in 1990 and one year later made their first NCAA College World Series . Leahy was instrumental in the opening of the Creighton Sports Complex and was inducted into the Creighton Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
After a partial retirement in 1990, Leahy was again called into service when the University of Nebraska-Omaha decided to make its first venture into Division I athletics with a men’s hockey program. With the ambition of a city behind the idea, it was for Leahy to work out the complexity of the NCAA rules, find development support and take care of logistical matters. The result: four new women’s sports to meet NCAA guidelines that have each gone onto great success, a tremendous amount of support for UNO Hockey upon its birth in 1997 (so much so that the UNO athletic department had to shut down the sale of season tickets) and a consistently winning program under Leahy hire Mike Kemp. The Mavericks sold out 131 consecutive games at the Civic Auditorium before moving to the Qwest Center, the third largest college hockey facility in the nation. Leahy reduced his role in 1997 to Assistant Athletic Director, but was still pivotal in the restoration of the football program to dominance, the continued success of the wrestling squad and tremendous achievements in women’s soccer, volleyball and softball. Leahy has been elected to the honorarium he begun when he became part of the UNO Athletic Hall of Fame.
There is never really an end to a career like Don Leahy’s, as his experience, enthusiasm and guidance continue to serve the Omaha sports community today; in much the same fashion, no summation of his career could do justice to someone who has spent the last half century making over the region’s athletics on every level. A success as an athlete, coach and administrator, Don Leahy epitomizes character and the ideal of what athletic are meant to mean. His name evokes a certain aura in the community that few can ever claim, and respect of every individual in the Omaha sports market. Don Leahy is a living legend more so for having the character of a champion than the numerous institutions and young people he led to glory; a legacy that will always define the best of Omaha and the best of sport.