UNF won 46 ASUN titles, more than doubled athletic department budget during his 12 years as athletic director
Lee Moon, being the old-school guy from Roanoke, Va., that he is, was in the process of cleaning his small office on the ground floor of the University of North Florida Arena.
A can of furniture wax in hand, Moon sprayed and dusted the top of a cabinet that had displayed medals commemorating many of the 46 ASUN regular-season and tournament championships that UNF has won during his 12-year tenure.
Above and to the right of the cabinet hung a wooden sign with a John Wayne quote: “Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.”
UNF stays close to home: UNF stays in-house to hire Nick Morrow as school’s athletic director, replacing Lee Moon
Stepping away: University of North Florida athletic director Lee Moon to retire in June
The medals had left rings on the wood, and Moon was scrubbing hard.
“I don’t mind,” he said. “Hope I can get these rings out.”
Just the size of his office shows Moon’s lack of pretension. Barely able to accommodate a desk, a few filing cabinets, the display cabinet and a couple of chairs for visitors, there are no doubt graduate assistant football coaches at SEC schools who have bigger digs.
“It’s always been good enough for me,” he said.
And the symbolism of Moon leaving his office better than he found it was inescapable because that’s exactly how he is leaving the UNF athletic department to Nick Morrow at the close of business on June 30.
Lee Moon’s 55-year career includes hiring Billy Donovan at MarshallMoon announced his retirement this spring and at the age of 74, he has 55 years of college athletics in playing, coaching and administration behind him.
Moon has held administrative posts at Alabama-Birmingham, Wyoming, Marshall and Kansas State.
It was at Marshall that he took a chance on a charismatic 29-year-old basketball coach named Billy Donovan.
Moon also was on the football staffs at Virginia, Duke, Mississippi State and Kansas State. He played at VMI and took a turn at semipro football with the Roanoke Buckskins.
Former UNF president John Delaney hired Moon on Feb. 5, 2009, to help the school transition to Division I athletics. Twelve years later, the Ospreys, in addition to their nearly four dozen championships, had made 81 NCAA post-season appearances in team and individual competitions and produced 43 conference players of the year, 31 freshmen of the year, 33 coaches of the year and almost 900 All-ASUN selections.
More importantly to him, the program has produced 23 ASUN scholar-athletes of the year (eight this season alone) and the student-athletes combined to average a 3.0 or better grade point average for the 20th semester in a row.
Nearly every UNF athletic facility has been upgraded and the new aquatic center is on the verge of completion. The athletic budget has more than doubled, going from $6 million when he took over to more than $13 million per year before the pandemic hit, and last year, despite the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, UNF raised a record $3 million.
During an interview with the Times-Union, Moon talked about the challenges he faced in his final year in steering the UNF program through the personal and financial perils of the COVID-19 pandemic, what he considered his greatest accomplishments and his favorite moment in UNF sports (the answer will surprise you).
Moon was also blunt in his assessment of the future of college athletics. He believes that the Name, Licensing and Image issue has numerous land mines to negotiate and thinks the transfer portal situation is out of control.
Again, old school. But he makes no apologies and has no regrets.
Question: How have you been spending your last few weeks and days? Answer: “Really, my big thing is talking to people. I’m a big face-to-face guy. I believe in communicating face-to-face, whether there’s a problem or something good to share … I want to look them in the eye. And I’m going around and seeing the people I appreciated being a part of my life here and just thanking them for their efforts in helping make us better and understand the role of college athletics and Division I athletics, in particular, at UNF.
“There were a lot of years in the beginning where people didn’t understand that. Some of them didn’t want Division I athletics and had no clue about it. Some of them probably still don’t understand. But since [current UNF President] David Szymanski has taken the reins, everyone has had a better understanding that athletics if used properly, can be the front porch of your university.”
Q. What went into the timing of when to retire? “I really wanted to retire last year but David Szymanski didn’t want me to go because he didn’t think he could hire an AD with the COVID situation going on. He didn’t think it would be good timing. My contract is up on June 30 of this year and when I’ve made a commitment in the past, I’ve stuck to it.
“It was very, very stressful, financially and trying to keep everyone on point with COVID, following the guidelines, being able to play sports, not miss games and try not to get people sick. It was really, really hard and it just wore me out. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I decided to finish this [academic] year and that’s it.”
Q. What kind of financial shape is the athletic department in, given the loss of revenue because of the pandemic? A. “We were financially responsible and made some very tough decisions on cutting budgets. We cut everything really hard, cut it to the core. We were on bare bones … cut team travel, went out and back almost every game, had no recruiting budgets … but it really saved us. My goal going into the year was to not have to cut anybody, not to furlough anybody, not to eliminate any positions and not to take any scholarships away, and we did that. Our coaches did a great job.
“This year, 2021-22, will be difficult. We’re still in a financial recovery. We’re not getting the same guarantees [from basketball ‘money’ games against Power 5 conference teams]. We were getting $95,000, $100,000 but we’re going to get around $75,000 this year because that’s what the market is right now.
“But we had our best year of fundraising, $3 million in a pandemic, and that’s a credit to Nick and his team.”
Q. What are you most proud of? A. “Probably the people that are here, people I’ve hired over the years, the coaches. We have really good coaches and that’s showing in how good we’ve become. Plus, my staff. We have a good working staff that understands the expectations I’ve had. Not one administrative staff person was here when I got here. It’s a great nucleus of people who will really help Nick start his career as an AD.
“Second, is what we’ve accomplished academically. It’s unbelievable to see what we’ve done. We’ve had 20 semesters where our student-athletes have averaged above a 3.0. When I got here, we didn’t have many teams above a 3.0. It took us a couple of years to get there but coaches understood what I wanted. We recruit the right kind of student-athletes that want to get a quality education at UNF. We’ve had great athletes but also great human beings and I’m glad I had a chance to be a part of their lives, to touch them in some way. That, to me, is the most important thing.
“It really comes down to the difference between success and significance. Significance is what I wanted when I came here. I wanted success but I really wanted to make a difference in the university and make a difference in the lives of the student-athletes who were coming here.
“Winning that [ASUN] basketball championship [in 2015], in such a short turnaround, six years after going to Division I … that’s really up there.
“But my single best memory was the ASUN women’s cross country meet [in 2017] at Kennesaw. We had a really good team and Eden Meyer ran away with it and won the individual championship. Her sister Grace hadn’t run in a couple of weeks because of a foot injury and she was really back in the pack.
“But late in the race she passed about seven runners to the finish line [to finish 13th] and we won the team title by one point. It was unbelievable, the grit that Grace competed with. But that’s the great thing about college athletics.”
Q. There are some huge issues facing the NCAA right now, most notably Name, Image and Licensing. Where do you see that going? (Note: the interview took place before the recent Supreme Court decision)A. “I think it’s going to be the downfall of college athletics. That’s my opinion. That’s all part of this, retiring now. Honestly, I don’t want to deal with that. I have no desire. There are things I feel they haven’t even scratched the surface on as far as how they’re going to handle it.
“For example, people don’t talk about this but international student-athletes can’t work off-campus. They violate their student visas if they do. What will they define as work if they get paid for a service? I can’t be the only AD in America who has thought about that.
“And my gosh, that transfer portal is a nightmare at this level. People will cherry-pick you. If you develop a player one or two years and someone needs a player, they’ll take him over a freshman.”
Q. Are you saying there’s a danger mid-major conferences will essentially serve as developmental leagues for the Power conferences? “Absolutely. And it won’t matter what sport. I just don’t want to deal with it. All of that, the finances, the portal, NIL … I’m going to leave that for these young cats to deal with.”
Q. What are your immediate plans? A. “My wife Connie is still recovering from back surgery and as soon as she’s well, we’re going to go to Chicago and go to Wrigley Field. I’m a big Cubs fan and we’ll also go to some other Major League parks and see the Cubs. At some point, I’ll go up north to West Virginia and visit some buddies from my Marshall days that I’m still really close to.
“But eventually, I still want to do something. I still have a lot of energy. I want to do something in athletics that makes a difference but I don’t want to do it full-time. And I want it to be stress-free.”