OOzeball is one of UConn’s longest and most beloved campus traditions. The muddy volleyball tournament, run by the Student Alumni Association (SAA), attracts thousands of students every spring.
But how did OOZEball come about in the first place? We interview Nick Zaharias ’85 (CLAS) for some answers—as well as his role in several other UConn traditions.
On behalf of many Huskies, we’d like to thank you for your part in creating OOzeball. So what’s its origin story? How did this muddy pastime come to be?
In 1982, as the Student Alumni Advisory Board (SAAB)—the precursor to today’s SAA—was created, our advisor Nancy Amols Gingras ’81 was looking for a unique and cool event and fundraiser for our new student group. She saw a TV clip of a school in the Midwest sponsoring a small mud volleyball tournament. Our board quickly appointed Bob Rajtar ’84 as the first “Wizard of OOze” and the UConn tradition was born.
The beginnings were quite inauspicious, since we had almost no budget for the event. In fact, we could not even afford properly screened fill the first couple of years, so Nancy and the SAAB members raked the nearly free dirt by hand for days, pulling out rocks, tree branches and even some garbage. That first year we had only a handful of teams, so they all played in the single mud court.
The event quickly exploded in popularity, and in OOzeball’s second year we invited Jonathan the mascot to play in the mud for the news crews. Jonathan unveiled himself publicly for the first time ever—and it was then-UConn President John DiBiaggio inside the suit!
We “old timers” are so proud of today’s Student Alumni Association and the current OOzeball Tournament, which has become one of the largest and best in the entire country!
We have also found out that you were once Jonathan the Husky mascot yourself. Without divulging too many secrets, what’s it like to don the costume? Any stories you can share about your time as Jonathan?
Being the UConn Husky back in 1982-83 was one of the highlights of my life. I had so many fun and unique experiences as Jonathan. I was one of the first mascots to ever use props—which included eye charts for refs, Super Soakers, and Silly String. I was even named a co-Homecoming King as the Husky.
The old suit was heavy and not well-ventilated, so it served as a fantastic weight loss program. On a hot, humid day, I could lose five or more pounds of water weight in a couple hours, so hydration was the key to survival. The gifts for Jonathan from friends and fans were hilarious: I received actual fire hydrants and the Dog Lane street sign, among others. The kidnapping attempts by schools like Yale and UMass were more common than anyone might imagine, but my Russell D floormates served with honor as my personal security force in this regard.
Unfortunately, I’m probably most well-known for the infamous brawl with the Seton Hall Pirate, with this photo (at right) ending up printed prominently in the Hartford Courant. I just love the expressions of the people in this photo as they realize this play-fight was just becoming real. The Pirate initiated the fracas, and he cracked the Husky head with the pole of his pirate flag. I had no option but to end the scuffle with a knockout on our home court—at which time the undergrad running the sound system played the Rocky theme as I tossed the pirate flag into the crowd. I’ll never forget that ovation from the Husky faithful with the Pirate lying on the court (although the closed door meeting the next morning with Athletic Director John Toner was not quite so enjoyable).
How did creating and participating in UConn traditions and activities impact your life after graduation? Did your on-campus activities open any doors for you after college?
When I was picked as the Husky Dog (which was sponsored by the Alumni Association at the time), I got to know the Executive Alumni Director Roger Thalacker very well. This led to my involvement in the founding of the Student Alumni Advisory Board, of which I later became President. I was active as a student volunteer in the Alumni office for two years, which eventually lead to me becoming the Assistant Director of the Association, then later the Director of the UConn Annual Fund. Thus, student activities at UConn led directly and unexpectedly to my 30+ year career in advancement.
What makes me most happy is that I’ve raised over $80M so far for hospitals, colleges, universities and independent schools across New England, which means I’ve impacted and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of othersؙ—and this all started as a UConn undergraduate.
Best of all, I met Patty Ellis ’84 through these student activities. She served on the Board of SAAB and later became Patty Zaharias. Fast forward a few decades, and today we enjoy a great life with a son who is a highly successful attorney. So we are truly blessed, and everything professionally and personally for us is tied back to our experiences in Storrs.
You clearly showed a lot of school pride during your time at UConn. What’s your relationship with the university now? What’s your vision for UConn—and how can alumni help their alma mater grow?
We live in New Hampshire now, but we still feel well-connected to my alma mater. Social media is wonderful for informal reunions and keeping in touch with former dorm-mates, SAA alumni, cheerleading alumni, and other former mascots and coworkers from our UConn days. So in addition to the formal alumni events and programs, there is a LOT of informal UConn Alumni networking, tailgating and fun that goes on around the world.
We are Life Members of the Alumni Association, and make an annual gift as our way of saying thanks for all UConn provided us. I try to get back to speak to and meet with the current SAA members whenever I can—they are amazing, welcoming and gracious when we talk about the SAA’s humble beginnings.
Patty and I recently added UConn to our estate plans in a significant way so that we’ll be able to leave our legacy in Storrs, and help future Huskies enjoy terrific learning and life experiences too.
Our good friend Bobby Hopson ’83 is a senior officer in the UConn Admissions Office, so we hear plenty of stories about today’s students. The academic prowess and abilities of today’s undergraduates truly boggles my mind. UConn is now a top dog in athletics, academics and a top-ranked public institution in the country. We can all be very proud of these amazing accomplishments, and in the progress the university’s made in such a relatively short period of time.
Our thanks to Nick, Patty, and others who played important roles in the founding and keeping of UConn’s traditions. We’re grateful to have you all as members of the UConn family!
If you’d like to join Nick and Patty in including UConn in your estate planning, please visit the UConn Foundation site to learn more about the Charles Lewis Beach Society.