Every once in a while you meet someone who can bring a perspective full circle because they’ve had the rare opportunity to evolve through more than a single facet of an experience. For Lionel Bacon his new position in VCU Athletics, as the Associate Athletic Director for Development, is just the latest stop in his journey. It’s a decision that has brought him back to a place he has always considered home. Lionel has made the transition from prospect torecruit, player, former player, alumni, volunteer, and now staff. Returning to VCU is something Lionel “always thought would be a best case scenario. During graduate school while working in the athletic department I always felt as if I was Lionel Bacon the “former men’s basketball player”, I thought that by leaving, I could come back as Lionel Bacon the professional…that just happens to be a former player here.”
Lionel Bacon is the quintessential “Ram for Life”. You couldn’t design a better brand promoter for what VCU is building if you tried. Bacon exudes passion for everything about the university and the athletics department. Whether it’s his memories from his time as a student-athlete, his years as a fan, work as a volunteer, or his new role on staff he can’t stress enough his appreciation and love for VCU and the impact it has had upon him. He is driven by the desire to share the VCU story, lessons from his own journey, and to ensure that future generations have a positive experience at his alma mater.
Bacon is a Louisville, KY native but feels like he “grew up” in Richmond. “I have been very comfortable in Richmond since the day I arrived as a freshman. I’ve seen it change in so many ways over the past 28 years.” Some of the change he observed from afar from cities including Cleveland and Houston while working for the YMCA over the last 20 years. He says that there is “light years” difference playing off campus (at the Coliseum) to on campus at the Siegel Center. That’s not the only physical change to VCU since his time as a student. He says that at any given time there are multiple massive construction projects underway changing the landscape of Broad Street and the campus.
Bacon says “The most rewarding part of my YMCA work and volunteerism with VCU is the opportunity I get to share my passion for the institutions and “tell the story” of the wonderful things each one does. In my role as Associate AD for Development I will get the opportunity to reach out and build relationships with the community, former players and alumni, sharing from the perspective of a former student athlete myself.” The YMCA has allowed him to gain 20 years of experience in Board Development, Fundraising and Financial Development, and Fiscal Management which he thinks will allow him to assist and complement the athletics department team. Part of that experience was put to good use prior to joining the staff. Lionel as a volunteer helped raise funds for a very ambitious endeavor, the $25 million VCU basketball practice facility currently under construction. Now he can monitor its progress through his office window and will get to see it every day upon completion.
It’s obvious that Lionel’s connection to the university runs deep. After graduating he continued to develop relationships with coaches, Athletic Directors, and Presidents at VCU. He never loses sight of what he received from the school. “I am appreciative of what VCU has done for me…I had the opportunity to graduate with both my undergraduate and graduate degrees.” He was able to do both without incurring debt as a student-athlete and wants to stress the value of that to current players. “The college experience goes by fast. Enjoy it, stay focused, and graduate.” Bacon said that “graduating in 4 years was my goal, being able to achieve that was pretty special.” It did however come in as his second proudest achievement as a Ram. The top place honor is reserved for the game winner he made at Western Kentucky in front of his friends and family.
Bacon has many great memories from his time on the VCU men’s basketball team. Including the NIT run his sophomore year that he describes as “fun”. The team lost to UConn at UConn and was an NCAA bubble team that year, but didn’t make it into the tournament. He’s remained a fan of the VCU men’s basketball program and says it’s always hard to watch as a fan, adding he paces the floor in front of his TV during games. What he’s looking forward to most is attending his first game as staff in his new gear. Although he anticipates being more nervous at that game than any game he played as a Ram or watched as a fan.
Even though Coach Shaka Smart’s Havoc style of play is “an animal of its own” he says his sophomore and junior year teams resembled Smart’s current tempo. “It was very fast paced up and down like a track meet”. His junior year, “Play was more focused on out-scoring our opponents than stopping them. Since it was such a fast paced game that was my favorite style of play, and the offense I thrived most in. My scoring average was highest that year.” That year he played an average of 32.7 minutes per game, averaged 14.9 PPG, was 73% from the free throw line, provided 78 assists, and had 46 steals. As a follow up to that his senior year he served as team captain.
Some highlights from his time as a Ram were the “travel, meeting some of the nicest people he’s ever met, playing with some great players, and building life-long relationships”. In his opinion the most important thing he took from his time on the team was “the importance of giving my all every time I stepped on the floor. I quickly realized that I could not always control how well I played, but that I could always control how hard I played. I can honestly say…I played my hardest every time I played.”
Thanks to his 28 years of continuous connection to VCU Bacon hopes to bring some institutional memory, long-time relationships with current fans and donors, and a former player’s perspective to his role in VCU Athletics. Bacon believes that playing hard is a VCU tradition and that historically players giving their all results from the fact that the university didn’t always get the top 10 recruits. He says that “We weren’t always more talented than our opponent but we always played harder than them.” He thinks it’s important for players to understand the program’s history and the journey of those that preceded them. He also understands the immense scrutiny that the players face, and knows that it can be challenging to be under the spotlight. The message that sums up his experience and what he wants to impart to current players most is “To always carry themselves as gentlemen in every setting because eyes are always on them. They will make some mistakes and that how those mistakes are handled will be more important than the mistakes themselves.” It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey and what you do with the opportunities and impediments that you encounter along the way.