The Here and Now
This December it will be three years since Director of Athletics Lee De Leon moved to Abilene to take the helm of the Department of Athletics. At 32, he would become the youngest Div. 1 athletic director in the country – an accomplishment shattering his initial goal of obtaining this type of job before he was 40.
Now as students, faculty, fans and the Abilene community as a whole await the grand opening of Wildcat Stadium, De Leon said this was the best decision he has ever made.
“It’s been the best decision of my life to come here and I couldn’t be happier here at ACU,” De Leon said. “You know, when I got here, I wasn’t sure how I’d be accepted. I’m not an ACU alum, I’m not a member of the Church of Christ – I was a little nervous about that – but man I feel like the people of ACU have really loved me and welcomed me and embraced me.”
Although Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium is what many people might first associate with De Leon’s tenure here, the program has now completed the fully Div. 1 transition under him and the student-athlete number has grown to over 400. However, De Leon said he has been fortunate to capitalize on momentum garnered before him.
“Jared [Mosley] really set me up for success and had the train moving in the right direction,” De Leon said. “I felt like it was my job to capitalize on the momentum that had been created and to tell our story nationally.”
And it’s safe to say ACU is on its way to being known nationally. Less than a year after his arrival, De Leon signed a five-year partnership with Nike, making ACU just the fifth school in Texas to do so. And just last spring, ACU Athletics inked a 10-year deal with IMG College, a worldwide sports marketing and promotional firm.
Although the partnerships, new stadiums, new sports and fully Div. 1 eligibility have highlighted the last three years for De Leon, he said he never forgets where the journey began.
Beginning of a Journey
“In high school I was a pretty avid soccer player and I went to Notre Dame thinking I could walk on to the program there and I tried out on the first day of school and immediately got cut,” De Leon said. “So here I was at Notre Dame with no chance of playing Div. 1 athletics and decided you know what – how can I still be involved with industry, be involved with this passion of mine that is college sports?”
Then De Leon met Matt Root. The two met in the dorms at Notre Dame Root’s freshman year, De Leon’s sophomore year. Root was a scholarship football player at Notre Dame, and began attending the same small group as De Leon, where the two became close friends..
“Lee is a really outgoing, really good, really friendly guy,” Root said. “He was a huge Notre Dame sports fan. He was real passionate about his relationship with Christ and I was a freshman just kind of trying to find my way, wasn’t a strong a believer and he helped me.”
But it wasn’t long after the two got to know each other that Root helped him.
“Growing up around sports as a kid, I actually had a close friend whose dad was an athletic director, and I thought Lee would be perfect at that,” Root said. “Just thinking about Lees personality just being really gregarious, just being a natural leader. He led all these events at Notre Dame. He’s just really good at bringing people together.”
It didn’t take De Leon long to agree either, when Root shared those thoughts with him.
“I remember exactly where I was standing outside my dorm, I remember it like it was yesterday and I thought about it for about 2.5 seconds, and said ‘Ok! That sounds awesome!'” De Leon said.
And now over a decade later, it comes as no surprise to Root that Lee is in the position he is now.
“Lee really embodies not being intimidated by any challenge,” Root said. “He’s just really, really bold and I think a lot of his success can be attributed to his faith and how he’s trusted the Lord to open up doors for him to climb up the ranks to be an athletic director.”
Root also gave insight as to why De Leon is so passionate about mending the bridge between student-athletes and the rest of the student body.
He has a really cool perspective as an athletic director, because he has a student body perspective,” Root said. “He was the ultimate fan in college. Any sports event that was going on he wanted to go to it, he just followed them all. Lee really embodies and has such a heart for school spirit and the college coming together and the sports teams kind of representing the student body.”
It’s that perspective that De Leon hopes to bring to the rest of the community.
This year’s freshmen won’t remember it, but many others will remember the emptiness of Shotwell Stadium on game days. But if De Leon has anything to say about it, he wants more than just the ACU community to be apart of the new era Wildcat Athletics.
“We need to do better with the community of Abilene. And we’re trying to do that, we’re trying to think of ways we can do that,” De Leon said.
De Leon said he and his staff want the new stadium and many of the improvements to come in the future to be a used by the community.
“One of the ways I think we can do that is through Wildcat Stadium and opening it up to the community. There’s only going to be five ACU home games per year we want to use it throughout the year. I think it can be a rallying place for the entire community as well.”
Because De Leon said it’s not just the football team winning on the scoreboard that makes the athletics, the university and the city of Abilene successful.
“People are going to associate [ACU] with this entire city and for us to be successful and win at the highest level like we want to win, we’re going to need the whole city behind us.”
That vision and mission might have began long before De Leon, but on Saturday when an ACU football game hits campus for the first time in 59 years, it will have the chance to be displayed in full force.