Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Vassallo Interviews: Mónica Lebrón Excels as Associate Athletics Director for Ole Miss

Mónica Lebrón with a "converted Rebel friend" at the Peach Bowl
Mónica Lebrón with a “converted Rebel friend” at the Peach Bowl

Mόnica Lebrόn serves as our Associate Athletics Director for Development/Major Gifts. Mόnica joined the Rebels in August 2012 after having been with the Cal Athletics Development staff for four years. She was hired as a senior major gifts officer and grew to a senior associate director for major gifts during her stint in Berkeley. Prior to Cal, Mόnica was with the University of Florida in which she served as the associate director for Gator Boosters, Inc. for 4.5 years.

Mόnica also spent a year with the NCAA, as a governance intern, where she had the opportunity to work with all three divisions and their management and presidents councils. Before Indianapolis and the national office, she studied at The Ohio University where she received both her master’s in business administration and master’s in sports administration. During her second year of the program, Mόnica served as the graduate assistant for development within the Ohio Athletics Department.

Mόnica received her Bachelor of Arts degree in women’s and gender studies from Yale University in 2001 where she was also the captain and four-year letterwinner on the Yale softball team. While at Yale, she also served as an assistant to the director of athletics and volunteered her time during games and special events for the Bulldogs. In addition to her experience in the Yale Athletics Department, Mόnica also interned in the athletics departments at the University of Michigan, University of Washington and Stanford University, primarily with development.

A native of San Jose, California, Mόnica also enjoys musical theater, dancing, singing, writing poetry and playing board games.

Lebrón with Rebel at College World Series
Lebrón with Rebel at College World Series

Mónica: I was born in West Lafayette, IN, but my parents moved to San Jose, CA right before I started Kindergarten, so I am definitely a California girl. I attended Archbishop Mitty High School, one of the top college preparatory schools in the county, and then continued my education at Yale University where I received my undergraduate degree. I later received my master’s in business administration and master’s in sports administration, both from Ohio University, and now I am lucky enough to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi in pursuit of a PhD in Higher Education.

HottyToddy.com: The journey that brought you to Ole Miss was an interesting one. Describe the “twists and turns.”

Mónica: I met Ross Bjork, our Director of Athletics, about 8 years ago at our industry conference. Instantaneously I knew he was someone I would want to work for and with someday. I would not have guessed in a million years that I would be working with him at Ole Miss. While I had worked in the SEC, at the University of Florida, and I had been to a couple games at Ole Miss, working here was never on my radar. Yet, year after year, I stayed in touch with Ross and kept a close watch on his career path. It wasn’t until he arrived in Oxford that I took notice of Ole Miss. And, once the job I have now was posted, I did everything in my power to get it. I knew nothing about Ole Miss or Oxford or even the state of Mississippi, for that matter, but I knew Ross Bjork and I trusted that coming here to work would be a positive move for me professionally. It has been that and so much more!

HottyToddy.com: It is always advantageous (as well as interesting) to get the perspective of someone not from Mississippi and to hear his/her impression of Ole Miss. A penny for your thoughts?

Mónica: It surprises me every time the words come out of my mouth, but at least once a day I find myself telling someone how happy I am here in Oxford and at Ole Miss. People usually then follow up by asking me what it is I like most about Oxford and without hesitation I say, “The people.” From the first day I arrived in Oxford there have been people showing kindness and consideration towards me. Now, that might be how people are raised in the south, but it is still pleasantly startling to me each time I am confronted by it. Whether it is letting me go ahead in line at Kroger or someone telling me s/he is happy I chose to work at Ole Miss and they are grateful to have me here, there is a warmth about people here in Oxford that on occasion still brings me to tears because I am constantly reminded that I am not only loved, but looked after here.

HottyToddy.com: Ole Miss has definitely raised its national profile in the past 3 years. What do you attribute this to mostly?

Mónica: I believe we have been so fortunate to garner attention as a result of success in various areas of campus. Dr. Hannah Gay was named to Time Magazine’s “The 2013 TIME 100” for her work in functionally curing a newborn of AIDS. That is not just national news, that is international news, and she exists right in our University of Mississippi Medical Center. In 2014, Dr. John Hall was named the SEC Professor of the Year. Every time an SEC contest is played we see a commercial recognizing him and therefore recognizing Ole Miss. And, lastly, as Ross always says, athletics isn’t the most important piece of our University, but it is the most visible. Having College Gameday here, exposing its viewers to The Grove, having Katy Perry tweet a “Hotty Toddy” to her 64 million twitter followers, beating Alabama, and donning the cover of Sports Illustrated only further illuminated to the world what Ole Miss fans have known all along – there is something magical going on in Oxford and I need to experience it for myself. If you don’t believe me, ask admissions whether or not application numbers have increased.

Lebrón survived the Death Valley and  got on television too!
Lebrón survived the Death Valley and got on television too!

HottyToddy.com: Is there a university that you are familiar with that closely resembles Ole Miss?

Mónica: There are so many fabulous institutions in this country and I feel fortunate to have worked at some greats. Certainly, every SEC program has a passionate fan base – yes, even Vandy! What has stood out for me here at Ole Miss, though, is that passion and admiration for this University goes beyond wins and losses. There is a common thread that weaves in and out of everything I witness on this campus and it stems from the word “family.” There is a familial air about this place that draws people in – it happened to me and I have seen it happen to my friends who have come to visit – once you are here, you fall in love and you feel like family. Wearing an Ole Miss logo and sharing a Hotty Toddy doesn’t just link this family together while they are on campus, they link them for life.

HottyToddy.com: Ole Miss is spending millions presently on new facilities. Is that wise?

Mónica: We ask our student-athletes to compete at the highest levels both academically and athletically. We ask our coaches to win in their respective sports and graduate their student-athletes. We try to attract future student-athletes to enroll at Ole Miss and commit to competing for the Rebels. Thus, as an athletics department, if we are demanding those things of these groups it is our responsibility to ensure we are providing state-of-the-art facilities to help achieve those goals. We know our alumni and fans want to see these same successes, both in the classroom and on the fields and courts, so we turn to them to help us with the funding. We are all in this together, we are a team, and we all have to do our part to achieve greatness. So, do I think it is wise? I absolutely think it is wise because those facilities will attract stronger recruits, create a more competitive environment, help us compete at the highest level, and beat the likes of our SEC brethren which ultimately increases our national and international exposure, leading to heightened application numbers.

HottyToddy.com: In what areas do our alumni need to focus more beyond the big three in athletics?

Mónica: From top to bottom, all of our athletic programs are worth seeing in person. We are so fortunate to compete in the Southeastern Conference which is one of, if not the, toughest conferences in every sport it sponsors. For example, our women’s basketball team is off to its best start in years and this Sunday, February 1, we host the #1 team in the country in South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. It is not every day you have an opportunity in Oxford to witness one of our teams knock off a #1, but that is how competitive our conference is in every sport. This spring, we will have several teams in the SEC ranked in the Top 25 in softball. Thus, our softball team will have the opportunity to make a name for itself by competing at the highest level. Whether it is tennis or golf, track or rifle, our student-athletes work hard and they deserve an audience. I encourage all of you to go check out at least one contest for each sport!

HottyToddy.com: Football has always been the “straw that stirs the drink” here. Is this still the case?

Mónica: If the question is, “Does football generate the most revenue and allow our athletic department to operate a positive cash flow?” the answer is a resounding, “YES!” However, I see that as an extremely fortunate situation. We have nearly 400 student-athletes that we provide resources for which we would not be able to do without the attraction that Ole Miss Football draws. We are lucky to have such a supportive football fan base that leads to revenue generation which ultimately leads to providing greater resources for our student-athletes.

HottyToddy.com: What is one of the accomplishments you are most proud of since you arrived here in August, 2012?

Mónica: When I arrived in 2012, we were well underway with our Forward Together campaign. We had raised about $60 million with an ultimate goal of $150 million. Two and a half years later we have surpassed the $130 million mark through the generous support of our Ole Miss Athletics Foundation members. I am proud to represent our members and I am proud to work side by side with my teammates in the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation – they drive me every day to achieve new goals and greater heights. Hey, Teammates, if you are reading this, “THANK YOU!”

Lebrón has endless hugs for the Egg Trophy.
Lebrón has endless hugs for the Egg Trophy.

HottyToddy.com: Mónica, fast forward to 2020…what do you want to be doing?

Mónica: What I have learned through my past experiences is that I absolutely cannot predict the future. Just as I wouldn’t have guessed I would ever be a Mississippi resident, I will not guess where I will be in 2020. I will, however, share that I hope I am more advanced in my career and closer to the ultimate goal of becoming an athletics director and that I am working with kind-hearted people who challenge me and make me smarter every day. I hope to have completed my doctoral program and, because I love it here so much, I hope to still be an Ole Miss Rebel.

HottyToddy.com: Tell us about your family; where they are; and how often do you get to see them?

Mónica: My immediate family is scattered all over the country and world. My father, Carlos, who is a retired State Farm Insurance Agent, lives in the Dominican Republic. My mother, Marta, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, lives in San Jose, CA. My older sister, Blanca, and her husband, Ben, also live in the Bay Area. Our oldest sister, Martha, and her wife, Christine, live in Des Moines, Iowa. I get back to San Jose about twice a year and my mom comes to Oxford once a year, but it is never enough time – I miss them every day! They have all become huge Rebel fans, though, so they are certainly proud of our success.

HottyToddy.com: You are an extremely impressive, highly intelligent individual. What advice could you provide to today’s students regarding their academic/professional future?

Mónica: My advice is to know and be true to yourself and who you are as an individual. Try to determine, as early as possible, what you are passionate about and let that drive your ambitions. Money has never driven me, which is fortunate because entry level college athletics positions aren’t the highest paying jobs out there. It never mattered to me, though, because I have always loved coming to work every day. Now, I do have friends that are driven by money and desire to live an expensive lifestyle and that is okay, too. I don’t judge them for that choice. My advice to them is to stay true to that passion and make decisions accordingly. Regardless, be true to you.

HottyToddy.com: If you could do just one thing over again, what would that be?

Mónica: I’m not big on do-overs because I believe with every mistake there is a lesson to be learned, but I will tell a quick story: When I worked at the University of Florida, I served as the liaison between the head coaches and all their alumni club speaking engagements. We were scheduled to fly down for one of Coach Urban Meyer’s speaking engagements and at the last minute, with the weather as bad as it was, Coach Meyer decided it was too unsafe and we would have to drive. He and our media relations director got in the car and started driving the 2.5 hours to the event. I was pretty upset that he waited until the last minute to make the decision and knowing I wouldn’t make it to the event on time I decided not to attend. Within the hour, I got a phone call from our Senior Associate AD informing me I had made a bad decision and he reprimanded me. That could have been the end of it, but I felt I owed it to both Coach Meyer and our Associate AD to apologize for my decision, in person, so I arrived at their offices at 7am the next morning and apologized face to face with Coach Meyer. While he was disappointed in my decision, he appreciated my courage for coming to speak to him and accepted my apology. We still remain close to this day. The moral of the story is, “Don’t ever get too big for your britches.”

HottyToddy.com: Tell us about your viewpoint as to Oxford and your community involvement participation.

Mónica: I’ve moved so many times now for my career I feel I can teach a class on it. I knew I would not survive here if I didn’t make friends and get involved with the community, so the first thing I did was join the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce. One Chamber After-Hours after another I continued to make friends and feel more comfortable. Then, I was lucky enough to be selected for Leadership Lafayette which taught me more about this town and our county, in 10 months, than some people learn living here their entire lives. I took my involvement a step further and expressed an interest in serving on the Chamber Board, which I now do, as well as applying for and being selected to the 40th Anniversary class of Leadership Mississippi. Again, I can’t explain in words how it is that I feel so strongly in sync with Oxford and the state of Mississippi, but what I can say is that I am happy and grateful, every time I get out of bed, that I found my way here. It’s not a likely path for a single, 35 year old, Californian who attended Yale, but somehow it’s working out perfectly.

HottyToddy.com: What is the state of Ole Miss Athletics?

Mónica: In my opinion, I am so proud of where Ole Miss Athletics stands today and I am excited for the bright future ahead. We are growing stronger every single day, in our academic achievements, in our athletic accomplishments, in our facility improvements, and more. Those three areas alone include the help of University Administration, Athletics Administration, Coaching Staffs, Student-Athletes, and most importantly Alumni and Fan support. We would not be here without all those units working towards the common goal to better our environment and I cannot think of another institution I would rather work for and represent at this time. Thank you for your support of Ole Miss Athletics and to learn more about our Forward Together campaign please visit our website at www.forwardtogetherrebels.com.


Steve-Vassallo-Photo-Oct-20131-150x150Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. In addition, he is a certified economic and community developer and currently, a highly successful leader in the real estate business with Premier Properties of Oxford.You can contact Steve at sovassallo@gmail.com or call him at (985) 852-7745.

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