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At Liberty University, a private evangelical school suddenly flush with cash and immense athletics ambitions, there is almost no amount of dirt they won't move or concrete they won't pour these days to help break into the big time.

In the middle of a $500 million makeover of this campus, which sprouted from the Blue Ridge foothills in 1971 under the name Lynchburg Baptist College and endured nearly 40 years of financial hardships and political controversies attached to its late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., are a sparkling set of new athletics facilities that touch nearly all of Liberty's 20 varsity sports.

Its baseball stadium, which opened last year, has player and fan amenities that would put most of the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conference schools to shame. Its half-finished softball complex promises to be just as spectacular. In the last five years, new practice or playing facilities have gone up for soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, golf, track and field, basketball, volleyball and tennis.

And its football stadium, which reached a capacity of 19,200 after a renovation in 2010, has a set of blueprints at the ready to add 6,000 seats in the near term and more than 40,000 over time.

In December 2011, Turner Gill sat in the plush presidential suite atop the football stadium, on the verge of accepting Liberty's head coaching job.

But as he peered out from a brand-new five-story tower onto the program's practice complex just beyond the north end zone, Gill, the former Buffalo and Kansas coach, had another question for school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.

"Would it be possible to add one more practice field?" Gill asked. "Sure," Falwell replied. "We can make that happen."

In the current climate of NCAA uncertainty, where smaller Division I athletics departments are more concerned about their future viability than getting into the facilities arms race, granting such a request with a snap of the fingers is practically unheard of.

"Everything here is built to expand," athletics director Jeff Barber said.

Wiping Out Debt

Falwell Sr., who was famous and polarizing as a right-wing political figure and televangelist, long envisioned the university he founded as a potential religious/athletics power in the same vein as Notre Dame and Brigham Young.

But until his death, Liberty had neither the resources nor the academic reputation to be even a candidate for a major athletics conference.

What changed? In 2007, the school collected on Falwell's $29million life insurance policy, clearing its debt. Then, thanks to an external degree program developed and accredited in the 1980s -- "coursework mailed in boxes with videotapes of lectures," Falwell Jr. said -- the school was well positioned to take advantage of the explosion in online education.

Liberty has roughly 12,000 students on campus and 95,000 online, putting the school in a good enough financial position to rebuild almost everything, including a new high-tech library, music school, health sciences building, osteopathic medicine school, student recreation space and a 252-foot tower attached to a student center. It even has a year-round, artificial Snowflex ski slope atop a nearby hill, the only one of its kind in the USA.

But Falwell acknowledges the university is battling an image problem attached to its early days and some of the political backlash that surrounded his father, particularly within the academic community given that school presidents decide who gets invited to their conferences.

"The perception is that we're primarily a small Bible school, and the reality is we're a liberal arts university with engineering, medicine and nursing," Falwell said. "A lot of people think religion is our No. 1 major, and in reality it's ninth."

Not that Liberty is running away from its religious roots. Students are required to go to convocation three times a week, curfew is enforced at midnight, alcohol isn't allowed on campus and there are no coed dorms.

It's also true that Gill, who kept a Bible on his desk when he was coaching at Kansas and Buffalo, was hired in part because his religious beliefs align with what the school espouses.

But the environment has become less strict in recent years, with fewer conduct restrictions and what Falwell characterized as a good balance that students enjoy. And Gill said he is not required to recruit only Christians but rather players who are willing to be engaged in Christian values.

"Some people define the college experience as getting drunk and hooking up," said Dominique Davis, a senior defensive end on the football team. "If you come to Liberty and you're looking for that, you can find it. But if you're looking for great people to be around and get you to grow and ... find the Lord, you'll find that as well. That's the predominant culture here, but it's all about how they view the experience."

According to a person with knowledge of the Sun Belt's thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the dialogue was supposed to be private, the school's religious mission never came up in discussions among athletics directors and presidents when considering Liberty's potential for membership.

Especially in these times, when some Football Bowl Subdivision schools might be weeded out on finances alone, Liberty's future is likely to be evaluated on its athletics merits.

"I tell people Liberty is better than what they think it is and different than what they think it is," said Barber, who spent 10 years as an associate athletics director at South Carolina. "We have a lot to offer a conference."

Ready to Jump

One of the unintended consequences in the most recent round of conference realignment was a group of schools making the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to FBS without the preparation or wherewithal to be successful.

The Sun Belt, for instance, was so picked over by Conference USA, which had to replace members who left for the Big East, that five of its 11 members have been playing in FBS for fewer than three years.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern were highly successful in FCS and endured long internal debates before making the jump. Others, such as Georgia State, were completely unprepared but had to jump at the opportunity when offered.

It's unclear how financially viable those programs will be in the long term, especially as the price tag to compete goes up.

But every decision and hire Barber has made as athletics director in recent years, he said, has been geared toward the FBS transition, even though no starting date has been set. Gill's experience at FBS programs was a major consideration in landing the job as football coach, and Liberty has done things like a training table for athletes that are simply not common at the FCS level.

"We go to other schools, and they don't have what we have, and it's humbling," said quarterback Josh Woodrum, who helped lead the team to a Big South co-title last season. "I know places like Richmond and William & Mary are content being a little powerhouse in FCS, but I don't think Liberty is content with that at all. The direction to FBS is exactly where we should be going."

Barber said adding staff and 22football scholarships won't be an issue financially, and the next phase of facility plans includes a new all-sports training and academic center with athletics offices. An indoor football practice building is also being discussed.

Not to mention stadium expansion, which Barber said could begin immediately after getting an FBS conference invitation. Liberty has a waiting list for its 18luxury boxes, which sell for $25,000 a year, indicating there's enough interest to support such a move.

And Liberty isn't going to stop spending until it does happen. Because for all the work Falwell has done remaking the campus and the school's academic image, he knows nothing would be a game-changer quite like the opportunity to play on ESPN.

"My father used to say there were two universal languages all young people understood -- music and athletics -- and to build a world-class university those two components have to be a major part of it," Falwell said.

 

August 20, 2014

 

 
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