Liberty University Football
Liberty's Alex Barbir (95) celebrates kicking the game-winning field goal in a football game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

Opinion: Liberty University Football Team Realizes Falwell’s Winning Vision, But at What Cost?

By Jonathan Merritt

Liberty University has long bragged about being one of America’s largest Christian colleges, but this year, it can also boast about its undefeated, nationally ranked football team. The Flames have racked up a series of upsets, including wins over Syracuse and Virginia Tech, en route to an undefeated 8-0 record and a debut appearance in the Associated Press top-25 rankings.

No one predicted this day would come — except Liberty’s founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.

“The difference between mediocrity and greatness is vision,” the late Falwell Sr. often declared.

His vision was not of gleaming ivory towers alone but of dominance on the gridiron. “My dream was to raise up a world-class university that would compare favorably with what Brigham Young and Notre Dame provide for Mormon and Roman Catholic young people, a world class university; academically excellent, athletically competing at the highest level in the NCAA.”

To anyone watching the then-college’s first football team in 1973, two years after its founding, this seemed like a hallucination. Mired in the NCAA’s second-tier Division I-AA, and despite schedules packed with mostly featherweight teams from lesser-known schools, the Flames failed to distinguish themselves or draw crowds.

As an undergraduate at Liberty in the early 2000s, I joined in the eye rolls and snickers Falwell’s improbable prophecies about the football program’s future greatness invited. From 2000 to 2004, when I was on campus, the Flames amassed a pathetic 14–31 record. 

In May of 2007, the 73-year-old Falwell Sr.’s death ushered in the Jerry Falwell Jr. era.

Falwell the younger, appointed Liberty’s president and chancellor, inherited his father’s ideal of an evangelical super-school and his core value of winning. It’s cemented in Liberty’s mission — “training champions for Christ” — and is baked into the college’s broader culture.

Liberty University Sparky Eagle
Liberty University’s Sparky the Eagle stands at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Shaban Athuman)

In sports, as in politics, winning takes a mountain of money. Luckily, cash was something Falwell Jr. knew how to get. After using his father’s multi-million-dollar life insurance policy to wipe out the school’s outstanding debts, he built the school’s booming online education program. A far more proficient fundraiser than his father, he transformed Liberty into America’s largest Christian college and what The New York Times dubbed, “a billion-dollar empire.”

And Jerry Jr. was willing to spend as much of it as was necessary to realize his father’s football-fever dream. He spent $29 million on an indoor football practice facility and $32 million on an athletic administration building. He expanded seating capacity in the stadium to a whopping 25,000, added luxury skyboxes and negotiated his way into the NCAA’s top-tier football division. 

Some have carped that Liberty has become overly focused on boosting athletics while ignoring the school’s spiritual culture and sub-par academics. Falwell Jr. has dismissed critics by saying, “It’s kind of comical to me when people say Liberty has left its original mission to go big-time in sports, because that was the original mission.” He’s not wrong about that.

But it takes more than money to build a world-class collegiate athletics department. You need to find a way to attract talent and experienced coaches and administrators, too. The school’s mandatory curfew and stringent moral code inhibited its recruitment program — prohibitions against alcohol, dancing and rated-R movies, it turns out, are not a recipe for collegiate athletic success. Nobody was going to choose this puritanical school in sleepy Lynchburg over schools with better athletes, larger budgets, national fanbases and television contracts.

Unless, of course, the school is willing to make a couple of compromises.

Liberty University Students Williams Stadium
Students attend Campus Community in Liberty University’s Williams Stadium on Aug. 26, 2020, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Video screengrab

In 2017, Liberty hired Ian McCaw as athletic director. McCaw had recently been fired by Baylor University after an investigation revealed that school leaders, including McCaw, ignored or mishandled multiple allegations of athletes committing sexual assault. The university’s final report concluded that the football program, specifically, acted as if it was “above the rules” and may have perpetrated a cover-up.

McCaw, along with Baylor President Ken Starr, an attorney who once famously served as independent counsel investigating former President Bill Clinton, were let go. McCaw would have been considered tainted, if not unhirable, by many major athletic departments.

A similarly surprising hire was that of Hugh Freeze as head football coach in late 2018. Like McCaw, Freeze had been fired by his previous employer, the University of Mississippi. The NCAA found that under Freeze, Ole Miss’ football program built an “unconstrained culture of booster involvement” that included the use of cash payments, free hotel rooms and the arrangement of fraudulent test scores for football recruits.

After surveying Freeze’s phone records, Ole Miss officials discovered a “concerning pattern” of calls to adult escort services. The irony is thick given that Liberty holds that sex outside of marriage is a serious sin.

Jerry Falwell Sr.
Jerry Falwell Sr.

But the hirings helped to move the conservative Baptist school, which requires students and faculty to adhere to a strict moral code known as “The Liberty Way,” closer to its founder’s goal. In 2019, Liberty’s football team moved up to the NCAA’s top tier. Falwell Jr. gave Freeze and McCaw sufficient funds to build a competitive program and recruit better talent.

Falwell Sr. was a pious preacher who railed against what he believed was sin, particularly sexual immorality. So he may be squirming at his school’s ethical equivocations (including his own son’s forced resignation for sexual misconduct). Regardless, his dream is on the precipice of realization. Only three NCAA football teams in the FBS division have a perfect 8-0 record: Notre Dame, Brigham Young and Liberty. The elder Falwell couldn’t have scripted it better himself.

The one component of Falwell Sr.’s vision that remains unrealized is his vow that one day Liberty would play Notre Dame in their historic South Bend stadium — and win — on national television. That declaration once seemed laughable but is now within the realm of possibility.

The question for Liberty is what realizing such a dream would cost in both cash and compromises.

Jonathan MerrittJonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service, a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He resides in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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10 thoughts on “Opinion: Liberty University Football Team Realizes Falwell’s Winning Vision, But at What Cost?”

  1. Well I am sure a lot of those young bucks on the football team were sufficiently motivated by Jerry Falwell, Jr’s wife. As for Junior himself, he never attended the games as he preferred to watch.

  2. I truly have an upset stomach after reading this. No wonder why the author of this article kicked evangelical Christianity to the curb with all that he has seen.

    1. @Meg – I don’t know why someone wants to kick Christianity to the curb. Jesus doesn’t disappoint — in fact, He is our only hope. The apostle Paul knew a lot about individuals who claimed to Christ followers and yet caused him great grief and heartache (check out the book of Philippians), yet he was willing to die for Christ and to plant churches in the name of Jesus.

      1. Thank you, Don, I should have been clearer. Jonathan Merritt has not kicked his faith to the curb at all but is now part of a “progressive Christianity” which to me is not based on God’s Word. I am pretty sure he no long stands on important doctrinal issues such as Biblical inerrancy. Of course Merritt can not blame this on what he has seen in the evangelical body but it gives credence to those wanting to bash or leave Biblical Christianity. His father is Pastor James Merritt – an incredible pastor and church planter himself.

  3. The New York Times dubbed “A billion dollar empire”…..is the writer of this article attempting to convey that so called “newspaper” is some sort of “authority” to determine what is moral and immoral? Or what is legal or illegal? The New York Times (or Slime as some have dubbed it) is a bastion of morality now? The same so called newspaper that wrote an article (over 10,000 words of tongue foolery) on President Trump’s tax returns (which is illegal to disclose, but I’d digress). Tax avoidance is LEGAL under U.S. Tax Laws…..tax evasion is ILLEGAL according to the same laws. President Trump never violated the latter…but it is an election year, so why not try and throw as much mud as possible to the President, specially who happens to be surrounded by those “non scientist” crazy, Bible thumping evangelicals?
    The writer of this article also “opines” in The Atlantic…another left wing so called “authority” on morality and Biblical Christian living?
    Even if the University were to close down, sell it, demolish it, (or feel in the blank your preference…), the “official critics” of God’s church would jump to incinerate whatever would remain with as much napalm as possible. As ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, we are to represent His people and His church with careful word and deed, specially in the incendiary political climate the nation is under. If not, these so called “opinion writers” are adding to the warning of Paul in Romans 2:24. If we have so called “friends” or even “brothers” in God’s church, like Jonathan Merritt, who needs the liberal, “progressive” enemies of the New York Times or The Atlantic?

    1. “Enemies”? That’s dramatic.
      Why do we have to jump to this defensive “whataboutism” that vilifies those who disagree with us….or those who point out the plank in our own eye as the evangelical community? That is what the unrepentant do when confronted with sin – deflect and blame.
      We as Christians need to take the plank out of our own eye, period. Liberty should be better than this. Instead of defending, deflecting, and demeaning the Times, the Atlantic, the author or whoever – we need to demand Liberty repent, clean house, and be better.

  4. This is so unfair to the players at Liberty. They would not have gotten to the point where they are with out being talented and working hard. If you think college football is corrupt, then fine. But Liberty is not the only one.

    1. Liberty isn’t the only one. But Liberty – as a Christian university – SHOULD be the exception. It’s a shame to be so defensive that we miss the point of how such immorality should be unacceptable at a Christian university. Liberty should be setting an example, not falling into the same traps.

        1. No they don’t. I have a problem with them too. (And you forgot Baylor.) Christian universities should be better. They are to be setting a Christlike example as they raise the next generation of mature disciples and evangelists.
          I don’t understand the argument to make incessant justifications for them to behave just like secular, worldly institutions.

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