LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)--Carey Green still laughs at the memory.
It was March 2006, and the Liberty University women’s basketball team had just won the Big South Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament. Optimism abounded. One year earlier, the Flames had made a Cinderella run to the NCAA’s Sweet 16, where they eventually fell to top-seeded Louisiana State.
Coach Green and his players said goodbye to well-wishers at the airport, including Liberty chancellor Jerry Falwell, and passed through security to catch their flight to San Antonio. Green, Liberty’s eighth-year coach, knew very well the depth of Falwell’s passion for Liberty sports. But never did Green expect what he saw next.
Somehow, before the basketball team reached its plane, Falwell had already worked his way through security, driven his black Chevy Suburban across the tarmac to the plane and begun chatting with the pilot. Before the flight left, he prayed for the team on the plane.
“You know Dr. Falwell,” Green said, chuckling. “He could make a rabbit climb a tree.”
When Falwell, 73, died in his Liberty office May 15, the Lynchburg, Va., school not only lost its founder and chancellor, but also its biggest athletic advocate. With Falwell’s passing, the biggest question surrounding Liberty’s athletic department is: Where does it go from here?
“He was our No. 1 fan and No. 1 supporter,” football coach Danny Rocco said. “He was a constant fixture at athletic events here.”
Falwell frequently spoke of making Liberty “for evangelical Christians what Brigham Young is for Mormons and Notre Dame is for Catholics.” That vision also extended to athletics – a lofty goal, for sure, but this was a big man with big dreams.
His brainchild institution – founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 – is now the largest evangelical Christian university in the world (20,000-plus total enrollment) and supports 18 teams that compete at the NCAA Division I level.
For 36 years, Falwell vigorously cheered on his Flames. In his younger days, the portly man allowed students to crowd-surf him up the aisles at basketball games – in his ubiquitous suit and tie, of course. And he was a constant presence at athletic contests – both big-revenue sports and the more obscure ones. Falwell, by Green’s estimation, attended about 80 percent of women’s basketball home games each year, always parking himself in the same seat in the Vines Center – front row, mid-court, across from the scorer’s table.
“Obviously, nobody will be able to fill that seat like he did,” Green said. “His encouragement and yelling will be missed.”
But the athletic department isn’t waving the white flag after Falwell’s passing. In fact, Liberty’s coaches are using it as a rallying point for greater gains. The morning after Falwell died, athletic director Jeff Barber met with his entire staff and exhorted them from Joshua 1:6 to “be strong and courageous” and keep pressing forward.
“He was the driving force behind the vision to be a world-class university,” Barber said. “The vision remains the same – it’s just that the person who brought it is no longer here to see it happen.”
Falwell’s darling was always the football program. He spoke sincerely about the team – currently in the low-tier Division I-AA Big South Conference – one day playing Notre Dame and took proactive steps for improvement. After a program-worst 1-10 season in 2005, he personally fired head coach Ken Karcher and replaced him with Rocco, who boasts a lengthy pro/college résumé. That same year, the school’s board of trustees set a deadline for football to make the jump to Division I-A competition within 10 years.
The wheels of progress are turning. Last August, construction was completed on a new Football Operations Center, a 60,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that an Atlantic Coast Conference official recently graded “as good as anything in the ACC,” according to Barber. The football field’s old AstroTurf surface has been replaced with superior FieldTurf, and an expansion of 12,000-seat Williams Stadium is in the works.
The on-field product is improving, too. After hitting their nadir in 2005, the Flames went 6-5 in 2006, set new single-game and season attendance records and played an impressive non-conference schedule that included 2006 ACC champion Wake Forest.
“It’s building and growing and gaining momentum,” Rocco said. “The Lord wouldn’t have taken Dr. Falwell from us if his job wasn’t complete. His job was complete. We have a foundation, and now we’re ready to move forward.”
The rest of Liberty’s teams also have been energized by the enduring example of their iconic leader.
“Our drive ultimately is not to lift up the name of Jerry Falwell, but to lift up the name of Jesus Christ,” said 21-year track/cross country coach Brant Tolsma. “That was his goal. There’s no shortage of motivation. If anything, it has increased.”
The athletic department is mirroring the overall campus’ recent explosion. Less than two years ago, the school opened an indoor track facility and an ice rink. The volleyball team recently moved into a new practice facility, and many other projects are on the horizon, including a wrestling/volleyball facility for game competition, a golf course and lights at the baseball stadium.
The women’s basketball team won an astounding 10 straight Big South championships before last season. The track team, now a national top-25 squad, sent a school-record five athletes to the recent NCAA Championships in Sacramento, Calif. In football, Lindy’s magazine recently ranked the Flames No. 25 in its preseason I-AA poll. And the Flames Club, the athletic department’s fundraising arm, is on a record-setting pace in 2007, reaching the $100,000 mark quicker than any other year in its 28-year history.
It certainly doesn’t appear Liberty is slowing down in the wake of Falwell’s death.
“I like to think of it as a relay race,” Green said. “Dr. Falwell was the first runner. The first one in the blocks is very explosive, lots of attention. Now he has passed it off. There’s a race each of us has to complete. We have a great example from our visionary leader.”
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