ABILENE – When last Saturday night’s game against Houston Baptist had come to an end with ACU on the right side of a 24-3 final score, director of athletics Lee De Leon spotted ACU president Dr. Phil Schubert on the turf at brand new Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium and wrapped him in a bear hug.
“We did it!” De Leon exclaimed through his own tears and above the roar of the sellout crowd of 12,000 fans, whose celebration had suddenly turned a football game into a block party. “We did it!”
They certainly had.
What they and an army of people across the ACU campus – along with partners at HKS Architects and HOAR Construction – had done was successfully bring Wildcat football back to a permanent on-campus venue for the first time since 1942.
But even with three years of planning and thought given to the grand opening, no one could have been prepared for the night they experienced. From Wildcat Country to Wildcat Walk to the game to the post-game fireworks show, the debut of Wildcat Stadium surpassed even the loftiest of expectations.
An unforgettable night more than three years in the making after April and Mark Anthony announced on Feb. 14, 2014, the single largest gift in ACU history – $30 million with $15 million designated for the football stadium and $15 million designated for the building and refurbishing of three science facilities – had come to an end with first-year head coach Adam Dorrel presenting the Anthonys, Schubert and De Leon each with a game ball in recognition of the win and their leadership in getting the stadium built.
“We had an unbelievable atmosphere out there,” Dorrel said after the game. “I’ve been fortunate in 18 years of college coaching to have been in some big venues and big games: national championship games and coaching overseas with Team USA. But Saturday night ranks right up there with some of the very best memories I’ve had of being on the football field. It was a special night because so many people put so much hard work into it. This is a milestone win for our program.”
After being presented with his game ball, Schubert briefly addressed the team, saying, “This is a new era in Wildcat football. Every day from today on is part of a different era.”
The feeling of turning the page from one era to the next – Shotwell Stadium to Anthony Field at Wildcat Stadium – was palpable on the field, in the stands and in Chuck Sitton Tower, the gleaming five-story press box that houses a club level, loge seats, luxury suites and a press level.
No longer will the Wildcats have to share a stadium with the Abilene school district where “Eagles” and “Cougars” are in the north and south end zones, respectively. No longer will students have to leave campus to go to home football games. No longer will the Wildcats have to take a bus – or in some cases, their own vehicles – to games.
In the stands, the 9,000 seats (plus 2,500 on the north berm and 500 in the tower) provide a cozy home-field advantage as compared to the spread-out 15,000 seats at Shotwell Stadium where even a decent crowd of 10,000 fans could make the stadium seem empty.
And in the press box where the press level in Chuck Sitton Tower features a men’s and women’s restroom (Shotwell had one unisex restroom), as well as heating and air conditioning, neither of which have ever made an appearance at Shotwell.
But it wasn’t just inside the stadium that was different. Outside there was tailgating in the mall area of campus and a Wildcat Walk that escorted the players and coaches through thousands of fans from the campus center to their locker room to get ready for the game.
“This is really cool that we all get to be so close together,” ACU student Bailly Swartz told ‘The Adam Dorrel Show.’ “It’s so much easier for people to get here rather than making the commute to Shotwell. This has much more of an ACU feel to it.”
And that’s exactly what everyone who dreamed of one day having an on-campus football stadium wanted. And Wildcat Stadium certainly delivered.
“This is ours,” De Leon has told thousands of people since he became the director of athletics in November 2014. “We don’t have to share it with anyone. This is a game-changer for our football program, and I believe we’ll look back on this night as a monumental one in the history of ACU football.”