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Flames' dreams flicker

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Rev. Jerry Falwell doesn't body surf anymore.

In years past, Liberty University's famed founder and chancellor, a self-described "sports nut," occasionally allowed himself to be passed hand by hand up seating sections by delighted students during football and basketball games at the Lynchburg, Va., school. But with age creeping up on him, the 72-year-old has mellowed a bit.

"I bruise easily and heal slowly, so I haven't done that recently," he said by phone last week.

But Falwell still loves to win, which makes the events of this fall that much more painful. On Nov. 17, he fired football coach Ken Karcher and two assistant athletic directors with one game left in a miserable, 1-10 season, the worst in school history. It was a huge step back for a Flames program that is trying to take a major leap forward.

Since he founded Liberty in 1971, Falwell has visualized NCAA Division I-A competition for each of the school's sports, now numbering 17. All have reached that goal except for football, which is mired at the I-AA level.

"When I started Liberty University 35 years ago," Falwell said, "we announced that we were going to build a university that compares favorably for evangelical young men and women to what Roman Catholics have at Notre Dame and Mormons have at Brigham Young -- a world-class school academically and athletically."

On Dec. 2, Falwell made his latest move to achieve that objective, hiring Danny Rocco, an associate head coach at Virginia for the past five years, to replace Karcher. Getting a coach with impressive experience in college and the NFL -- especially one from a strong program in neighboring Charlottesville -- is a boon for Liberty.

Still, Falwell's goal of I-A football seems like a steep climb. Besides becoming much more competitive, the school would need to enlarge its 12,000-seat stadium, and attendance would need to multiply exponentially. According to Falwell, the school's board of trustees has "given us a mandate" for football to become I-A within 10 years.

"We've really never gotten football launched the way we wanted to," he said.

Liberty's dilemma is this: How does a conservative Christian university reach college football's big time when it hands 18-year-olds a laundry list of rules with admission papers? How does an aging visionary, driven to show that evangelical Christians don't have to take a backseat to anyone, put a consistent winner on football's grand, worldly stage without sacrificing religious beliefs?

"I think you can win and glorify God without compromising your faith," Falwell said. "I believe, as Christians, we should be a little better. ... It's not easy, but it's doable."

Never say never with Falwell. The man dreams on a grand scale, having created a Southern Baptist empire in Lynchburg -- one that includes Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he founded and has pastored since 1956; Liberty Christian Academy, a K-12 school, and a burgeoning university.

Constant growth

Once-tiny Lynchburg Baptist College has blossomed into the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, training "Champions for Christ" on an ever-expanding, 4,400-acre campus.

The school serves more than 8,700 residential students and another 10,000-plus in its distance learning program, and plans one day to reach 50,000.

Falwell is also a man of deep religious convictions, which often invite controversy when he orates from the pulpit, Larry King Live or any other platform from which he can preach the Gospel and attack liberalism.

His ultra-conservatism is well-represented at Liberty, where the school bookstore sells T-shirts and bumper stickers that proudly proclaim, "Liberty University: Politically incorrect since 1971."

The rules have relaxed some in recent years, but Liberty is still demanding in its student conduct code, which is outlined in a thick handbook, "The Liberty Way."

There is a modest dress code, curfew (midnight most days), three mandatory convocation services each week and many other regulations, including prohibitions on dancing, R-rated movies and certain music. Any infraction, even during semester breaks, is subject to a strict system of reprimands.

As with all other students, these are the conditions that athletes on Liberty's teams are expected to conform. But Falwell doesn't see it as a major deterrent to success.

"Overall, it's a positive," he said. "There are kids who are not going anywhere there are rules, no doubt about it, but most kids want discipline. Most kids want excellence. For them, coming to Liberty is a positive thing, and their parents especially like it.

"We're not perfect by any means -- we have our problems -- but unlike most schools, the peer pressure is going in the right direction here."

According to redshirt junior linebacker Manny Rojas, a four-year Liberty veteran, each year brings new complaints about the rules from the incoming freshman class, but they usually fade with time.

Dealing with it

"There are lots of rules here that not everybody agrees with," Rojas said, "but you have to deal with it. A lot of guys come here and never had a curfew. Honestly, coming here has helped me a ton. Being out after 12 [a.m.] in most states, there's not a lot to do except get into trouble."

Rocco said Liberty's distinct campus life can be a selling point, not something to avoid, in conversations with potential recruits.

"We offer something that is unique and is special," he said. "So when guys are deciding between a couple other schools and us, there is a uniqueness to us."

Even in this unique environment, most of the Flames' athletic teams have thrived at one point or another and won Big South Conference titles.

The women's basketball team is seeking its 10th straight conference crown, and, last year, thanks in large part to 2005 WNBA lottery pick Katie Feenstra, it defeated Penn State and DePaul en route to the school's first appearance in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

Baseball, women's soccer and women's volleyball teams have won three Big South titles each, and the men's basketball team has captured two.

The exception has been football, where the Flames have never reached the NCAA playoffs and have little to boast about besides a handful of players who've entered the NFL, such as Eric Green, James McKnight and current players Dwayne Carswell (Denver) and Samkon Gado (Green Bay).

The Flames, who played an independent schedule until becoming a charter member of Big South football in 2002, only have 13 winning seasons in 33 years of existence. Liberty's greatest success came under former Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano, who went 67-53 from 1989 to '99.

This season was abysmal. After coming from behind to beat Division II Concord, 17-6, in the season opener, the Flames lost their next 10 games. Average home attendance was 5,752, less than half the stadium's capacity.

Karcher, who went 21-46 in six seasons at Liberty, was fired two days before (but still coached in) the team's season-ending, 34-17 loss to Norfolk State. Assistant athletic directors Kim Graham and Larry Hubbard were also released, and athletic director Thomas Park resigned after only eight months on the job.

"Basically, the whole season was frustration," said freshman quarterback Brock Smith.

Despite the gloom produced by the season, optimism abounds on Liberty Mountain, where construction is everywhere. Thomas Road Baptist Church is moving into a new building on campus. New academic, athletic and dormitory buildings are popping up everywhere. Behind the stadium's north end, construction is under way on a $7 million, state-of-the-art Football Operations Center.

Rocco has big job

The appointment of Rocco, 45, is part of the buzz. His coaching resume -- which includes assistant jobs with the New York Jets, Boston College, Colorado, Maryland, Texas, Tulsa and Wake Forest -- speaks of a man who knows elite football well.

"We believe we have the right man," Falwell said.

To win, Rocco must lure more of the state's deep talent pool to Lynchburg. Of the 87 players listed on Liberty's 2005 roster, only 22 were from Virginia -- "a low number," according to the new coach. And of course, he must find the right players to fit into the strict lifestyle at Liberty.

In the past, prospective students have been asked to submit a personal religious testimony with their admission applications. While not requiring that, Rocco said he will be selective.

"It all starts with the quality of people we bring in," Rocco said. "I'd give you that answer at any university I've ever been at. We have to go out and get players with the values and faith in what the university stands for. I look at it in a very positive way."

But if the wins still don't come, don't expect to see wild athletes lounging in the classrooms in shorts and 50 Cent T-shirts. At Liberty, some things never change.

"We don't win at all costs," Falwell said, "but we do cry when we lose."

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