Falwell decries religious bias
Three years ago, my curiosity about the athletics makeover at cash-flush Liberty University led me into the office of Jerry Falwell Jr., where he laid out a vision for how big-time football could bring the school his controversial father founded more national attention and respect. After raising its academic profile and transforming its campus, football was going to be the final piece for Liberty becoming the evangelical Christian equivalent of what Notre Dame is for Catholics and BYU is for Mormons.
“One of the (Sun Belt) presidents made the comment; he said, ‘ Yeah, Jerry, all you have to do is show people Liberty’s not Oral Roberts, it’s Baylor,’ ” Falwell told me at the time.
Setting aside the unfortunate irony there — Liberty hired former Baylor athletics director Ian McCaw last year after he was ousted in the wake of a sexual assault scandal — the transformation Falwell sought is still not complete.
Though the NCAA granted a waiver for Liberty in February to join the Football Bowl Subdivision as an independent, Falwell still has not found a conference willing to take the Flames despite nearly $200 million in athletics facility spending. Earlier this month, following Liberty’s shocking upset win at Baylor to open the season, the Virginian-Pilot reported, citing an anonymous source, that Liberty had offered C-USA $24 million for an invitation last year. Falwell retweeted the story Sept. 9 and added that a few “bigoted” university presidents vetoed from the Sun Belt and C-USA. Last week, he sent a series of tweets further indicating he believes Liberty is being excluded due to religious discrimination.
So I reached out to follow up with Falwell for further clarification, and his comments were interesting, even if you’re inclined not to agree with him on a variety of issues.
“Most college presidents are open-minded, most of them supported us, but there are some who are just plain religious bigots,” Falwell said in a phone interview this week. “And when somebody like me has a political opinion they don’t support, they can’t hide or contain that bigotry, and it’s just sad.”
Though Falwell says he’s happy with the outcome of joining FBS as an independent, pointing out the attractiveness of Liberty’s schedule, he’s still clearly unhappy with the way discussions played out with the Sun Belt in 2014 and C-USA more recently, where he claims a small number of presidents in each league objected based “purely” on religious grounds.
“We were told by people who were in the meetings the reasons they gave were all related to Liberty’s Christian evangelical mission and one of them brought up something my dad said in 2001 after the 9-11 attacks as a reason,” Falwell said. “When three presidents said we weren’t gong to support Liberty, no matter how qualified or how good they’d be for the league, they canceled a visit and we complained. For a public college president to (deny) a school as a member of a conference based on religious mission is illegal. It would be like opposing a school because it’s a historically black institution. We called governors and attorney generals and various states where these schools were located. One attorney general wanted to go after one of the presidents, but I said we won’t get in a conference through legal action so we didn’t encourage them to do that.”
Though C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod declined to comment through a spokesperson, Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson told USA TODAY Sports it was geography — not ideology — that caused the Sun Belt to offer a spot to Coastal Carolina instead of Liberty in 2015. He also said the Sun Belt didn’t turn down $24 million but that Liberty made a “sizable” offer.
“Our goal was to create an Eastern footprint that was as geographically connected as possible with the two Alabama schools, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Georgia State,” Benson said. “It’s important to maintain that boundary, and Coastal Carolina fit into that boundary. I have the utmost respect for what Chancellor Falwell has done with Liberty and building its athletics program. They definitely have created a facility complex that is better than the majority of Group of Five programs.”
Though the Sun Belt discussions took place before Falwell emerged as a key surrogate for President Trump, his high profile during the 2016 election might not endear him to colleagues in academia. It’s simply a reality that every time Falwell’s name is in the news — as it was recently, for instance, when he defended the president’s response to the Charlottesville protests — other school presidents might prefer not having to answer for that based on athletic conference association.
But as a counterpoint, Falwell says he’s hardly the first college president who has been visible politically.
“It’s like asking if Harvard or some of the Ivy League schools who have administrators who are extremely political and go on TV all the time to support Democratic causes if that makes their schools less qualified as educational institutions,” he said. “It seems to be a double standard. Father Theodore Hesburgh (of Notre Dame) was one of the most politically active university presidents of the last generation and he’d be on cable news shows all the time debating my father, taking the liberal side, but there are many politically active college administrators. They just happen to be all on the same side. University presidents are supposed to be open minded, open to all sorts of diverse ideas and opinions, but they seem to forget that when it comes to conservatives and Christians.”
Does Falwell have a point? Maybe. Though there’s no doubt Falwell’s far-right politics draw attention, is the school so far out of the mainstream — especially from an athletics standpoint — that it wouldn’t fit in a conference like C-USA that already includes a pretty diverse range of academic missions from Rice to Florida International?
And that could help explain why the NCAA granted Liberty a waiver for the rule that it needed to have an invitation from a conference to move up to the FBS level, surprising a number of administrators across the country. Had it not been granted, Falwell acknowledged he would have explored a “monster lawsuit” against presidents who opposed Liberty on religious grounds.
“I don’t know what we would have done,” he said, “but it was a major antitrust violation for schools to try to keep Liberty out based on nothing other than disagreement on religious and political issues.
“But it worked out better for us to become an independent in the NCAA, I’m so grateful for their support and their understanding in why Liberty was getting a raw deal.”
COACHING CAROUSEL CLIPS
Could the fallout from the Louisville basketball scandal impact its football program? Possibly. When Louisville brought Bobby Petrino back in January 2014, he agreed to a contract that would make it extremely difficult for him to leave — a major gesture of thanks for athletics director Tom Jurich giving him a second chance.
If Petrino wanted to leave Louisville before June 30, 2017 — essentially in the first four years of his deal — it would cost him $10 million to break the contract. After that date, the amount declined to $8.5 million, then incrementally less each year of the deal.
But the contract also contained an unusual provision: “Each of the amounts set forth above shall be reduced by 50% if at the time payment is due, Tom Jurich is not the Athletic Director of the University.”
Well, Jurich is no longer Louisville’s AD. Which means it would only cost $4.25 million to buy him out of his contract. Which means his name is going to be associated with every major coaching search, particularly in the SEC where there could be multiple openings.
While it’s hard to know whether Petrino’s personal loyalty to Louisville was tied directly to Jurich, his contract absolutely was written that way. And with significant upheaval coming this fall at Louisville, it might not be a bad time for him to explore other options.
Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert (12) passes against Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Sept. 2.