Liberty University Makes Play for Football Bowl Subdivision

Liberty University football
Liberty University's football stadium has a set of blueprints at the ready to add 6,000 seats in the near term and more than 40,000 over time. (Facebook)

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In December 2011, Turner Gill sat in the plush presidential suite atop Liberty University's football stadium, on the verge of accepting the school's head coaching job.

But as he peered out from a brand-new five-story tower onto the program's practice complex just beyond the north end zone, Gill, the former Buffalo and Kansas coach, had another question for school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.

"Would it be possible to add one more practice field?" Gill asked.

"Sure," Falwell replied. "We can make that happen."

In the current climate of NCAA uncertainty, where smaller Division I athletic departments are more concerned about their future viability than getting into the facilities arms race, granting such a request with a snap of the fingers is practically unheard of.

But at Liberty, a private evangelical school suddenly flush with cash and immense athletic ambitions, there is almost no amount of dirt officials won't move or concrete they won't pour these days to help break into the big time.

In the middle of a $500 million makeover of this campus, which sprouted up from the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills in 1971 under the name Lynchburg Baptist College and endured nearly 40 years of financial hardships and political controversies attached to its late founder, Jerry Falwell Sr., is a sparkling set of new athletic facilities that touch nearly all of Liberty's 20 varsity sports.

Its baseball stadium, which opened last year, has player and fan amenities that would put most of the neighboring SEC and ACC schools to shame. Its half-finished softball complex promises to be just as spectacular. In the past five years, new practice or playing facilities have gone up for soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, golf, track, basketball, volleyball and tennis.

And its football stadium, which reached capacity of 19,200 after a renovation in 2010, has a set of blueprints at the ready to add 6,000 seats in the near term and more than 40,000 over time.

"Everything here," athletics director Jeff Barber said, "is built to expand."

But Liberty's very public desire to move up from the 63-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision has yet to generate mutual interest.

Buoyed by rumblings earlier this year that the Sun Belt Conference would consider adding a 12th football member, Barber and Falwell Jr. made lobbying trips to seven schools and explained why they were ready to make the transition.

But at the league's spring meetings, the Sun Belt voted against adding another school until at least 2015. According to a person with direct knowledge of the Sun Belt's expansion plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the dialogue was supposed to be private, there wasn't much support for inviting Liberty this time around.

"They have a lot of resources, but does anybody even know they're Division I?" the person said. "If we're going to add a 12th, we want someone people are going to recognize and raise the profile of the conference. I just don't think Liberty adds anything to our profile."

That decision has, at least for the moment, left Liberty in a difficult position. In an era when administrators in FBS leagues like the Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA are worried about how they'll afford a wave of new player benefits brought on by autonomy for the NCAA's power conferences, here's a school saying it can commit whatever resources necessary to play at the highest level.

But with no immediate prospects of getting into one of the 10 FBS conferences, Liberty must wait, continue to build and hope its investment into college athletics will eventually pay off.

"We can be patient," Barber said. "I think there's still going to be more settling, more landscape change if you will. We just hope any of these conferences, when they decide they want to expand, that they'll give us a look."

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