On Thursday, Dee Leavell was appointed the new head coach of wrestling at Christian County High School, but if it wasn’t for a bet with the recently retired coach Robert Burnham, Leavell might not have ever hit the mats himself.
Even though he had deeply rooted family ties to wrestling — with his great uncle Tony Harris, his cousin Shawn Smith and his uncle Damien Leavell all pulling in state titles, and his cousin Anthony Smith a state runner-up for two years — Leavell had his sights set on the hardwood when he stepped foot in Christian County.
Solely focused on basketball, Leavell had aspirations of playing collegiately for the University of Kentucky. Despite this, Burnham — who was the head coach at the time — had gauged Leavell’s interest in wrestling. Leavell made it clear that he intended to play basketball, but Burnham had a proposition.
If Leavell made the basketball team so be it, but if he didn’t, he had to join the wrestling team. Basketball tryouts came and went, and once the team’s roster was announced and Leavell wasn’t part of it, he held up his end of the bargain.
While Leavell joined the team, he admits he didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until he didn’t find success in a regional tournament that it all clicked for him.
“I kind of looked at it as something to do and to kind of take up some time in the winter,” Leavell said. “I eventually got into the starting lineup and didn’t have the success that I should have had at the regional tournament and from that day forward I said, ‘That’ll never happen again.’ From that day forward I committed myself 100% to the game of wrestling.”
Leavell became a force to be reckoned with and eventually went on to wrestle collegiately at Campbellsville University. He competed for four years before looking to step into the coaching world, but that wasn’t the initial plan.
“I’ll be quite frank and honest, I had no want and no desire to become a coach even as an assistant coach or anything like that going into college,” Leavell said. “Going into college after my wrestling career at college, I was going to be done with wrestling.”
But while Leavell was at Campbellsville, he trained some kids individually from Christian County, and then in 2013, he sat in on a state finals match with Burnham. On the way back to Campbellsville from Lexington, Leavell pulled over and sent a text to Burnham asking what he needed to do to become a wrestling coach.
Leavell found himself back home in 2015 taking on an assistant coaching role with the plan of eventually becoming a head coach at Christian County in the future.
With five years of assistant coaching under his belt, Leavell said it has taught him a lot about the work coaches put in.
“It’s allowed me to see the ins and outs of coaching,” Leavell said. “Going into it outside looking in, you don’t understand the hours and days that are put into coaching. It’s not a two-hour practice time, then you get home and you come in on Saturday and coach all day. It’s an endless cycle of coaching.”
Leavell also said it’s taught him that coaching isn’t just about constant work and getting wins as well.
“It’s also taught me the personal side of coaching you know,” Leavell said. “The building relationships — not just with our wrestlers and the coaching staff, but with the parents so that they feel comfortable and they trust us and me to lead and guide their young wrestlers to doing the right things — to taking the trips and to give them the right advice.”
While seeing the wrestlers’ hands raised in triumphant victory is a great feeling, Leavell said Christian County wrestling is about more than just wins and that building relationships with his team and their families is what he enjoys most about coaching and he hopes to build on that as his coaching career progresses.
Leavell recently spoke to Woodford County Public Schools Hall of Fame member Rusty Parks — a coach with eight state wrestling titles, six state dual championships from 1980 to 2006, 38 individual state champions, seven high school All-Americans and a dual record of 582 wins and 33 losses all under his belt — and Parks told him there’s a big difference between a great program and a great season.
With Leavell and the Colonels allowed to return to training in some capacity on July 1, he said they plan to use that message as fuel for the team and that he is excited for the opportunity to ‘continue the legacy’ at Christian County.
“I told them we don’t rebuild at Christian County, we reload,” Leavell said. “We’re not rebuilding, we’re reloading and we’re filling in. So one of many things that I’m looking forward to next year is to continue the legacy and continue our takeover of the state.”