Hugh Freeze, Liberty University, and the Past and Future of Jerry Falwell's Football Dreams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Dec. 22, 1985

When Liberty University, the “largest Christian university in the world,” hired scandal-ridden coach Hugh Freeze in early December to lead its football program, the internet responded with its proprietary blend of glee and disgust. It was too perfect that the school led by Jerry Falwell Jr.—best known these days as Donald Trump’s “court evangelical” cheerleader—would hire a coach who lost his last job because he used school resources to contact escort services. 

While it is tempting to lump Freeze and Trump together, there is at least one major difference between the two. For all his improprieties, Freeze remains an insider in the culture of white evangelicalism, well-versed in the language of repentance and faith. At his introductory press conference Freeze spoke of his own sins and failures and his happiness to be at a place where “people understand grace and celebrate you, not only who you are but whose you are.” Falwell Jr. echoed those lines. “It’s part of Liberty’s DNA,” he explained, “to give people second, third and fourth chances.”

Because of Freeze’s comfort and familiarity with white evangelicalism, it is not all that difficult for Falwell Jr. to make the case that Freeze is a mission fit with the conservative evangelical university. Still, outsiders can be forgiven for looking at Liberty’s flashy new hire with a cynical eye. While it may be part of Liberty’s DNA to give second chances, those chances seem to be doled out to certain types of people—in particular, powerful men who have something to offer Liberty. And Hugh Freeze certainly has something to offer. With Liberty set to become bowl eligible in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—college football’s highest division—in 2019, Freeze is the man charged with fulfilling Liberty’s decades-long dream of entering the promised land of big-time college football glory.

Fundamentalist firebrand Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty in 1971 (it was known then as Lynchburg Baptist College). From the beginning, building an athletic program was a central part of Falwell’s plan. A former high school athlete and lifelong sports fan, Falwell had a personal affinity for athletics. He also believed sports were one of two hooks (music being the other) that could capture the attention of young people and win them to Christ. He felt, too, in line with what had become common sense for most of “Silent Majority” America, that competitive sports developed character and trained young men for leadership. By supporting a college sports program, Falwell hoped to use the platform of athletics to preach his brand of born-again faith while also fulfilling his personal interests and training young evangelical athletes to become future Christian leaders.

Falwell supported sports in general, but football had a special place in his heart. With its Ivy League origins, no other sport was as capable of conferring collegiate prestige as the gridiron game. In the 1890s the brand-new University of Chicago boosted its national visibility by hiring Amos Alonzo Stagg to build a football program. In the 1920s, Knute Rockne’s football success turned Notre Dame from a regional Catholic school into a university of national renown. Falwell hoped football could do the same for his Liberty Flames, providing prestige and respectability that would otherwise be difficult to attain at an upstart conservative evangelical school.   

Falwell may have had good reasons for his football fandom, but when he declared in the early 1970s that his tiny school would one day play major college football, the idea seemed preposterous. As Falwell Sr. raised his national profile throughout the 1970s and 1980s, however, expanding the viewership of his “Old Fashioned Gospel Hour” show and emerging as a leading Religious Right activist, his school—renamed Liberty Baptist College and then Liberty University—came along for the ride. By 1985 Falwell felt emboldened to make his football dreams known once again, declaring that Liberty would be moving its football program up to the NCAA’s second-highest division, I-AA (now known as FCS), with plans to enter Division I-A (now known as FBS) at some point in the future.

That 1985 was the year Falwell renewed his public commitment to football glory was no coincidence. It came immediately after the surprise national championship won by Brigham Young University, the premier university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seeing attention heaped on a conservative religious school fired his imagination: when Falwell spoke about Liberty football thereafter, he often referenced BYU alongside Notre Dame. Liberty’s football coach at the time, Morgan Hout, bought into Falwell’s vision, too. "Notre Dame is the flagship school for Catholic kids. Brigham Young is the flagship school for Mormon kids,” he explained to a reporter. “We'd just like to be the flagship school for born-again kids.”

Hout successfully led Liberty’s transition to I-AA, coaching the Flames to an 8-3 record in their inaugural season in 1988. But Falwell Sr. was not content. He wanted a flashier coach, someone with experience at the top echelons of the sport. Sam Rutigliano—head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1978 to 1984, and winner of the NFL’s Coach of the Year award in 1980—fit the bill. After forcing Hout out, Falwell gave the keys to his football kingdom to Rutigliano. 

Falwell’s coaching moves brought newfound attention to the conservative evangelical school, with Sports Illustrated, the “Bible of sport,” dispatching a reporter for a feature article. "At Jerry Falwell's Liberty U, everyone is praying for the football team,” the 1989 article’s subheading declared, “which, under its big-name coach, Sam Rutigliano, plays for the glory of God and, someday, a shot at Notre Dame."

Rutigliano never did get his shot at Notre Dame, or any other major college football program. But from 1989 to 1999, he led the Flames to six winning seasons and a respectable 67-53 record.

Despite the modest on-field success, by the start of the twenty-first century, Falwell Sr.'s big-time football dreams were not close to realization. Financial difficulties prevented Liberty from gathering the resources necessary to compete in Division 1-A. Falwell kept the faith, but adjusted the timeline. "One day in a wheelchair, I plan to be at the 50 year-line in South Bend when we whip Notre Dame,” he announced in 2004. “I may be in a coffin, but that's where we're headed." The next year, after a dismal 1-10 season, Falwell cleaned house, firing his athletic director and head football coach. "We're not even playing par I-AA football here, so obviously we have to start over,” he explained.

Falwell died in 2007 with his Flames still competing in Division I-AA football. But death did not destroy Liberty’s obsession with gridiron glory. It had become an ingrained part of the school’s identity, so much so that Liberty’s leaders doubled down. “I wanted to get it done for him while he was living,” Athletic Director Jeff Barber stated, “and now I feel more determined than ever to make sure his dreams come true.”

Falwell Sr.’s son and successor, Jerry Falwell Jr., shared Barber’s views. And he also had a means for making it happen: federal government dollars in the form of student loans and Pell grants, funneled into the coffers of the school through its pioneering online education program. Second only to the University of Phoenix in scale and scope, by 2010 Liberty’s system of online education was bringing in millions of tuition dollars from tens of thousands of students, transforming the school from debt-ridden to flush with cash.

With money to spend, Falwell Jr. kept his father’s football dreams alive. In 2011, the younger Falwell hired Turner Gill, former head coach of Kansas, to lead the Flames into the promised land. Falwell also began speaking out publicly about Liberty’s desire to move up to FBS football, and he hired a consulting firm to work behind the scenes to make it happen. “Football’s role in making Liberty a national institution was my father’s vision from the very beginning,” he told a New York Times reporter in 2012. “It might have seemed far-fetched then, but not now. We’re as ready as anyone can be.”

Liberty had the cash and the will as far back as 2012, but it still needed an invitation from an existing FBS conference. That final piece proved elusive—in Falwell Jr.’s view, because liberal university presidents were biased against his conservative evangelical school. With no invitation forthcoming, in 2017 Liberty finally secured a waiver from the NCAA to join the FBS as an independent, coming alongside BYU and Notre Dame as one of six schools so classified. The Flames completed their inaugural season as an FBS member in 2018 under Gill, going 6-6. Now, in a move reminiscent of Liberty’s transition to Division I-AA in the 1980s—when the coach who led the team through the transition was replaced by a bigger name—Hugh Freeze is at the helm.

But even if Liberty has FBS membership, gobs of cash, and a big-name coach with a proven record of on-field success, significant hurdles remain in its quest to become a football power. The glare of the FBS spotlight can make Liberty’s name more recognizable, but it can also make Liberty more attractive as a target for political activism. BYU, one of the models to which Liberty aspires, can attest to this. In 1969, civil rights activists and athletes—most famously at the University of Wyoming—used football to speak out against the LDS Church’s prohibition on blacks holding the priesthood (in 1978, the LDS Church ended its ban). More recently, LGBTQ activists have used football to exert pressure on BYU to make its campus friendlier to LGBTQ students. Liberal activists will likely have their eye on Liberty, whose football program, Falwell Jr. explained in 2012, aims to attract a “vast, committed fan base of conservative, evangelical Christians around the country and maybe even folks who are conservative politically.”

If Liberty’s football program does become a target for political activism, it would not be unprecedented. In 1985, Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina announced that it would stop scheduling football games against the Flames after protesters took issue with Falwell Sr.'s public support for South Africa’s Apartheid regime. But that 1985 event was a tiny blip on the sports scene. Liberty football was still in the minor leagues then, and the conservative impulse of the Reagan Era made the black “athlete revolt” that dominated conversation in the late 1960s seem a distant memory.

In the era of both Donald Trump and renewed black athlete activism, however, Falwell Jr.’s public postures are more problematic, at least for a university president trying to build an elite football program. It’s not the mere fact that he’s conservative—there are plenty of conservatives in college football. Rather, it’s that he’s a forceful critic of Colin Kaepernick and a loud and proud supporter of the president who called kneeling black players “sons of bitches.” While not all black players are fully on board with Kaepernick’s protests, even conservative black athletes who populate evangelical sports ministries are sympathetic to Kaepernick’s motives and perspective. And since college football relies heavily on black athletes—nearly 50 percent of the players in the FBS and 60 percent of last year’s consensus All-Americans are black—it’s probably not helpful to stake out a position of hostility to black experiences and perspectives. There’s a reason that few white conservative coaches in big-time football have waded into the waters of the Kaepernick controversy, and those who do—like Clemson coach Dabo Swinney—tend to quickly walk back their comments.

Of course, Falwell Jr.’s public proclamations do not necessarily speak for Hugh Freeze or anyone else at the university. And there are plenty of black athletes and coaches at Liberty (including, until earlier this month, Liberty’s head football coach). But as Liberty makes its way into the world of big-time football, the school’s conservative evangelical identity and its president’s close affiliation with Trump are not likely to fly under the radar. Will protests and activism follow? Will risk-averse administrators at major college programs decide that a game against Liberty is not worth the trouble? Will elite black high school athletes decide they don’t want to play for Trump University?

Will any of it matter?

Whatever challenges might lie ahead for a conservative evangelical school in an era of widespread LGBTQ and black athlete activism, Liberty University does possess at least one trump card: boatloads of money. Cash can cover a multitude of sins in big-time college football. And so, with Hugh Freeze and online education money, the mission launched by Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971 will move forward next season. The Flames do not have a game against Notre Dame on their schedule yet, but Falwell Jr. will undoubtedly keep trying. In the meantime, on November 9, Liberty has perhaps the next best thing: a matchup with BYU.