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Abilene Reporter-News (Texas)

 

Lee De León has been in the same office at the Teague Center since he arrived at Abilene Christian University in 2014 as director of athletics.

His room now has a dramatically different view.

To the north and west is the new Elmer Gray Stadium, the Wildcats' track and field facility. And out the north window is Wildcat Stadium, which he has watched rise from below ground level to completion.

"Absolutely amazing," he said, smiling that CEO smile. "We wanted to do this right. It has been fun to be part of this."

He said the $42-million stadium sets a "standard of excellence" for ACU as the university officially enters into Division I competition.

"We have two goals," De León said. "Exceed people's expectations and create a facility that will instill pride in students, alumni, faculty and staff. We want them to say, 'This is my stadium. This is my team.'"

The stadium got a test drive of sorts recently when the football team scrimmaged in its new home.

But Saturday evening, a new era begins for new coach Adam Dorrel, his Wildcats and football fans.

For the first time since N.L. Nicholson was the coach and the 1958 Wildcats took the field, ACU will play a home game on campus. The Wildcats played only one game on campus that season, outscoring Howard Payne 49-30 on Thanksgiving Day.

ACU looks to keep the winning streak going against Houston Baptist.

New home on the range

When Public Schools Stadium opened in 1959, ACU chose that then-modern venue, three miles away, to play its games. Now known as P.E. Shotwell Stadium, the field also became home to Hardin-Simmons and McMurry universities before their teams returned to campus.

Now, all three Abilene university teams truly have a home field.

Wildcat Stadium's first game features ACU playing host to Houston Baptist, two programs new to the Southland Conference. It's the conference opener and the first game that could count toward a league championship and a berth in the NCAA Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Conference members Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas advanced to the playoff last year, with Sam Houston losing to eventual national champion James Madison.

ACU and Sam Houston meet Nov. 11 at Wildcat Stadium. That may draw the biggest crowd of the season. Or maybe it'll be homecoming.

Or perhaps that will be Saturday, when the purple carpet is rolled out and fireworks burst in mid-air after the game.

"I hope it's full," De León said.

De León said 2,250 season tickets had been sold as of Thursday. That compares to 100 for the final season at Shotwell. More than 1,000 single seats have been sold. If the student section, which can seat 2,600 more fans, is filled, ACU is on its way to filling the 9,500-seat stadium.

For the biggest games, fans can watch from the south berm, adding another 2,500 fans for a capacity of 12,000.

The biggest stadium in the Southland Conference is Cowboy Stadium, the home field for McNeese State in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It seats just under 18,000.

"We have the nicest stadium," De León said, without pause.

The 2016 season was the final season at Shotwell, where one end zone is painted red and blue for the Cooper Cougars and the other black and gold for the Abilene High Eagles.

De León said the Abilene ISD was a "gracious host."

"But we never had our logos on the field or in the end zone. There was no purple in the locker room," he said. Referring to the new stadium, "This place screams ACU. It feels like home."

Smaller than Shotwell, the stadium is designed to be cozy. "The fans are on top of the action," De León said. "That will be a huge advantage for us. We purposely put the bleachers close to the field."

Rising above them on the west side, blocking the West Texas sun if needed, is a press box that rises almost 65 feet from the field. There, the media and game officials will work. But there are suites available for an enhanced game experience.

There's an elevator, which Shotwell didn't have, nor really need.

All Davids, no Goliaths

Will the "big boys" ever come to Wildcat Stadium?

Unlikely, De León said.

ACU has been playing up, taking on Football Bowl Subdivision teams the past several seasons in preparation for going full tilt in Division I. The Wildcats opened this year at New Mexico and Colorado State.

But the teams in the NCAA's top division, which are eligible for bowl games, are those with home game crowds averaging no less than 15,000 and offering 85 full scholarships. FCS teams usually don't average crowds that size and offer 63 scholarships. So, the smaller schools travel to the bigger schools, with rare exceptions.

Looking ahead, ACU will play Baylor in Waco next fall, North Texas and Mississippi State in Denton and Starkville, respectively, in 2019. Games of note already scheduled are Texas A&M in College Station (2020), SMU in Dallas (2021), Kansas State in Manhattan (the "other Manhattan," 2022) and Texas Tech in Lubbock (2024 and 2026).

Those teams will not be coming to Wildcat Stadium.

But as ACU settles into Southland play and develops rivalries, fans will look forward to the top conference teams coming to Abilene, De León said.

What to expect

Game Day at the stadium will kick into gear when the players and coaches complete their "Wildcat Walk" from the campus. That is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. start.

The game, by the way, starts at 6. It will end under the lights.

A ribbon-cutting is planned before kickoff.

"It will be a historic moment in school history," De León said.

Players from the 1958 have been invited to attend. Their numbers are fewer today but those who come will be honored on the field. Other past Wildcats players also are invited and will be made welcome.

It will be a big moment, too, for Dorrel, the greatly successful Northwest Missouri State coach who was hired to take over the ACU program launching into Division I play.

"We wanted to create excitement and a buzz about our football program," De León said.

The athletic director wants to see more than the immediate ACU family at the game.

"We're not West Texas Christian University, we're not Big Country Christian ... we're Abilene Christian," he said, emphasizing the city's name. "The stadium benefits the whole city of Abilene. We want them to come out if they're affiliated with ACU or not.

"There's plenty of room for everyone."

Expect the house to be rockin'. There is a huge scoreboard above the north end zone and the music and effects will be loud.

This is football, he said. Not watching a game on a flat-screen TV from your couch.

"We are going to make it loud and an intense atmosphere," he said.

The neighbors?

Well, they'll know there's a game being played, he said, smiling.

"It's just five Saturdays," he added.

Other promotions this season will be parents' weekend, a game at which youth will be special guests, the big homecoming game Oct. 21 and, finally, a salute to those who serve, be it in the military or as first responders.

As for De León, it'll be a busy first Saturday that includes a brunch for bigwigs and slipping off campus to see his 6-year-old son's first soccer game.

But as has been the ACU football motto, Game Day means coming early and staying late to cheer the Wildcats.

2017 ACU home games

Saturday: Houston Baptist University, 6 p.m.

Sept. 23: Stephen F. Austin, 6 p.m.

Oct. 7: McNeese State, 6 p.m.

Oct. 21: Southeastern Louisiana, 2:30 p.m. (homecoming)

Nov. 11: Sam Houston State, 6 p.m.

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September 10, 2017
 
 
 

 

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