Fal­well de­cries re­li­gious bias

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Dan Wolken FOL­LOW RE­PORTER DAN WOLKEN @DanWolken for break­ing col­lege foot­ball news and anal­y­sis.

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.

JEROME MIRON, USA TODAY SPORTS

Lib­erty quar­ter­back Stephen Calvert (12) passes against Bay­lor in Waco, Texas, on Sept. 2.

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