There’s an old riddle you may have heard: “Why does someone go out on a limb?” The answer is because that’s where the fruit is. Going out on a limb has become a trend for former FCS programs like Appalachian State and Georgia Southern who made the move to FBS. Both of those schools won multiple FCS (I-AA) championships, but the prestige of playing at the highest level is too great. In addition, an FBS program in the so-called Group of 5, can command more money to play a game at a Power Five School, you can on occasion host a Power 5 school like Appalachian State did with Miami last year and there is the allure of bowl games. You can win all the championships in the lower divisions that you want, but the prestige of playing in – and winning bowl games – is much greater.
Now it’s Virginia’s Liberty University that is going out on the limb. The school begins a two year process this fall of transitioning from FCS to FBS. That means the Flames enter this Saturday’s game at Baylor knowing they won’t be eligible to win their conference (Big South) title or play in the FCS post-season. It hardly matters because Liberty is about to accomplish a 40-year trek from a little program that was playing NAIA ball with training facilities in the middle of the James River on an Island known as Treasure Island to College Football’s Largest Division, with facilities to match most anyone.
Anyone who has ever heard the name Jerry Falwell, probably has an opinion. Falwell was the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia as well as the founder of Liberty. Personally, I thought he suffered from a chronic case of self-righteousness, which is not uncommon amongst evangelical Christians who some seem to believe that if you don’t carry the King James Bible, you are in a cult and going to hell. He also had a problem staying in his lane. His lane was to be the Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and the Chancellor of Liberty University. But, Falwell ventured outside those roles on a routine basis, involving himself in politics and founding something called the Moral Majority. He was one of the first “TV Preachers” beginning the “Old Time Gospel Hour” which was nothing more than a televised version of his sermons. All across the Lynchburg-Roanoke market, little old home bound ladies made the Old Time Gospel Hour Sunday morning at 11 a.m. must see TV. He also used his pulpit to raise money, sometimes from the same little old ladies.
He invited criticism and ridicule. In the early 1980s Hustler Magazine Publisher Larry Flynt published a parody ad about an alcoholic beverage that implied Falwell once had sex with his mother. Was it over the top? Yes. But, rather than laugh it off and let it fade, Falwell sued Flynt for defamation (always a hard case to make) in Federal Court in Roanoke. He eventually lost in the United States Supreme Court when the Court ruled correctly that the parody ad was Free Speech protected by the First Amendment. What could have quietly gone away (because Hustler Magazine had a pretty limited target audience) instead became the subject matter of a 1990s movie titled “Falwell v. Flynt.”
Despite the obvious faults that all humans suffer from, there is no doubting his vision and what he was able to do out of an unused hillside in his hometown of Lynchburg. In 1971 Falwell founded then Lynchburg Bible College with a handful of students in an abandoned building. It became Liberty Baptist College in 1976, before reaching University status as Liberty University in 1984. He used the unwanted land to create frankly one of the prettiest campuses you will ever see. The facilities, including the dorms which are really like apartments, are unmatched amongst schools Liberty’s size. Liberty has become in just over 40 years the largest evangelical Christian university in the world with 15,000 students on-campus and over 100,000 taking courses on-line. The on-line component was another area where Falwell was an innovator. How many on-line universities do you see advertised on television these days? Well, Liberty was the among the first if not the first to do so.
Falwell also understood that the best way to reach young people was not through religion per-se, but through music and sports. And that’s where we get to Liberty Football. Liberty first fielded a team in 1973 on the Junior Varsity Level. The first team went 3-3 against a schedule that included 4 Prep Schools, the JV team from Division III Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia and Ferrum College, then a Junior College powerhouse from Franklin County, Virginia.
The school fielded its first varsity team in 1976 at the NAIA level. In 1979, they went 9-1-1 and finished in the NAIA Top 20. In 1984, Falwell moved the school to NCAA Division II. The Head Coach was a decent man named Morgan Hout who guided the school through the transition from NAIA to Division II and then to FCS (then I-AA) in 1988 where Liberty went 8-3. The school played its games at Lynchburg’s decrepit old City Stadium the home of the city’s two high school teams. But, in 1989 they moved into their own on-campus stadium and underwent another transition.
An 8-3 record will usually keep you employed (except maybe at Nebraska where 9 wins has proved to be insufficient), but it wasn’t enough for Hout. Falwell – thinking big again – fired Hout and hired former Cleveland Browns Head Coach Sam Rutigliano, who had been given his walking papers by Cleveland owner Art Modell. Rutigliano was just the name Falwell wanted and needed to get Liberty national attention. In 11 years, Rutigliano went 67-53, with 6 winning seasons and never winning less than 4 games. But in 1999, he retired and Liberty Football hit an iceberg.
The school hired former NFL quarterback Ken Karcher, who was the offensive coordinator for the Rhein, Germany Fire of the World League of American Football. Liberty was Karcher’s first head coaching job and it showed. In six seasons he won just 21 games. His best season was 6-5 in 2004. In 2005, he was just 1-10 and at big-thinking Liberty that’s not going to get it done. Karcher was fired and has now resurfaced as the head coach at East Central Community College in Oklahoma where he’s been since 2013.
Karcher does deserve credit however for guiding Liberty from FCS independent to the Big South Conference. It was in the Big South that Liberty has seen its most success. First Danny Rocco took Liberty to its best season in 2008 at 10-2. Rocco won 4 straight Big South Titles, but because the Big South didn’t have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs for most of his tenure, he never went to the post-season before leaving in 2011 to take the job at Richmond.
In his place stepped former Nebraska Quarterback Turner Gill who had been fired at FBS Kansas. My first memory of Gill is always going to be watching him run Nebraska’s triple-option offense in the early 80s. It was Gill’s pass on a two point conversion in the 1984 Orange Bowl that went incomplete giving Miami its first National Championship. In 2014, Gill led Liberty to an 9-5 record, a share of the Big South Championship and the school’s first playoff appearance where they beat James Madison in round one, before losing to Villanova in round two. Liberty enters its transition year in 2017 coming off back-to-back 6-5 seasons. Gill’s job is clearly on the line. Liberty is about to take a step-up to big boy football and he’s working for an athletic director who didn’t hire him.
It’s also the 10-year anniversary since Falwell’s sudden death. He collapsed and died in his office in 2007. He left his university to his son Jerry, Junior who is the Chancellor and noted Donald Trump devotee, and his church to his other son Jonathan. He also left behind a life-insurance policy that completely cancelled Liberty’s debt the moment he passed away. That’s why building is rampant on campus, including additions to the football stadium. What started out at 12,500 seats will be 30,000 in 2019. Also, there are new luxury suites and reportedly more food options (I’m guessing beer isn’t on the menu) coming.
What’s also coming is a major challenge. Liberty will initially go the way of an FBS Independent program, joining BYU, Notre Dame, Army and U-Mass as “big boy” schools unaffiliated with a conference. My guess is that Liberty isn’t making this transition to be an Independent forever. I’m certain the powers that be have had contact with Conference USA and/or the Sunbelt about future membership, but for now their first FBS year in 2018 will feature games against Old Dominion, at Army, home against New Mexico and U-Mass and road games at Virginia and Auburn (oops). Future schedules include games with Bowling Green, Marshall, Southern Mississippi, Troy, UAB, and N.C. State. Liberty has also managed to get Duke, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and BYU to agree to home and home series which means that over the next 20 years, one or more of those schools will come to Liberty for a game in a given year. They’ll be Bowl eligible for the first time in 2019, and during that season Syracuse – the program of legends like Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb – comes to Liberty for a game.
Liberty has a new indoor practice facility, a weight room that is the envy of schools across the country inside its ultra-modern football offices. College sports is a arms race and Liberty can more than compete in that regard, but the question is can they be BYU and Notre Dame on the field or struggle like U-Mass? One thing that won’t be a problem is fan support. Liberty has become the hit of Lynchburg, and has reportedly sold out its luxury suites for this season (while telling those purchases that next year, they’ll cost more) and that means they’ll probably have more fans in the suites than U-Mass gets at its games.
Falwell often said he wanted to do for evangelical Christians what Brigham Young University did for Mormons and what Notre Dame did for Catholics. That vision has become a reality. Liberty has numerous academic programs including a law school which gained immediate ABA accreditation upon opening, which is unheard of among law schools. The question is will the vision become a reality on the football field? Well considering what in just 40-plus years has gone from an abandoned hillside to a sprawling campus with worldwide on-line reach, is there any reason to doubt that one-man’s vision often can become reality.