Flames' dreams flicker

Liberty's evangelical mission hasn't prevented most of its teams from making I-A grade, but football remains far short of the goal.

December 15, 2005|By JOSHUA COOLEY | JOSHUA COOLEY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Rev. Jerry Falwell doesn't body surf anymore.

In years past, Liberty University's famed founder and chancellor, a self-described "sports nut," occasionally allowed himself to be passed hand by hand up seating sections by delighted students during football and basketball games at the Lynchburg, Va., school. But with age creeping up on him, the 72-year-old has mellowed a bit.

"I bruise easily and heal slowly, so I haven't done that recently," he said by phone last week.

But Falwell still loves to win, which makes the events of this fall that much more painful. On Nov. 17, he fired football coach Ken Karcher and two assistant athletic directors with one game left in a miserable, 1-10 season, the worst in school history. It was a huge step back for a Flames program that is trying to take a major leap forward.

Since he founded Liberty in 1971, Falwell has visualized NCAA Division I-A competition for each of the school's sports, now numbering 17. All have reached that goal except for football, which is mired at the I-AA level.

"When I started Liberty University 35 years ago," Falwell said, "we announced that we were going to build a university that compares favorably for evangelical young men and women to what Roman Catholics have at Notre Dame and Mormons have at Brigham Young -- a world-class school academically and athletically."

On Dec. 2, Falwell made his latest move to achieve that objective, hiring Danny Rocco, an associate head coach at Virginia for the past five years, to replace Karcher. Getting a coach with impressive experience in college and the NFL -- especially one from a strong program in neighboring Charlottesville -- is a boon for Liberty.

Still, Falwell's goal of I-A football seems like a steep climb. Besides becoming much more competitive, the school would need to enlarge its 12,000-seat stadium, and attendance would need to multiply exponentially. According to Falwell, the school's board of trustees has "given us a mandate" for football to become I-A within 10 years.

"We've really never gotten football launched the way we wanted to," he said.

Liberty's dilemma is this: How does a conservative Christian university reach college football's big time when it hands 18-year-olds a laundry list of rules with admission papers? How does an aging visionary, driven to show that evangelical Christians don't have to take a backseat to anyone, put a consistent winner on football's grand, worldly stage without sacrificing religious beliefs?

"I think you can win and glorify God without compromising your faith," Falwell said. "I believe, as Christians, we should be a little better. ... It's not easy, but it's doable."

Never say never with Falwell. The man dreams on a grand scale, having created a Southern Baptist empire in Lynchburg -- one that includes Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded and has pastored since 1956; Liberty Christian Academy, a K-12 school, and a burgeoning university.

Constant growth

Once-tiny Lynchburg Baptist College has blossomed into the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, training "Champions for Christ" on an ever-expanding, 4,400-acre campus.

The school serves more than 8,700 residential students and another 10,000-plus in its distance learning program, and plans one day to reach 50,000.

Falwell is also a man of deep religious convictions, which often invite controversy when he orates from the pulpit, Larry King Live or any other platform from which he can preach the Gospel and attack liberalism.

His ultra-conservatism is well-represented at Liberty, where the school bookstore sells T-shirts and bumper stickers that proudly proclaim, "Liberty University: Politically incorrect since 1971."

The rules have relaxed some in recent years, but Liberty is still demanding in its student conduct code, which is outlined in a thick handbook, "The Liberty Way."

There is a modest dress code, curfew (midnight most days), three mandatory convocation services each week and many other regulations, including prohibitions on dancing, R-rated movies and certain music. Any infraction, even during semester breaks, is subject to a strict system of reprimands.

As with all other students, these are the conditions that athletes on Liberty's teams are expected to conform. But Falwell doesn't see it as a major deterrent to success.

"Overall, it's a positive," he said. "There are kids who are not going anywhere there are rules, no doubt about it, but most kids want discipline. Most kids want excellence. For them, coming to Liberty is a positive thing, and their parents especially like it.

"We're not perfect by any means -- we have our problems -- but unlike most schools, the peer pressure is going in the right direction here."

According to redshirt junior linebacker Manny Rojas, a four-year Liberty veteran, each year brings new complaints about the rules from the incoming freshman class, but they usually fade with time.

Dealing with it

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