Building A Christian Powerhouse Falwell's Liberty University Makes Big Gains In Football

Posted: September 28, 1990

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Christ teaches in parables, Sam Rutigliano tells his audience, and so does he.

So Rutigliano, former NFL head football coach, now head coach at Liberty University, takes off his tinted glasses, and in his gravelly, Brooklyn voice captures the attention of the lunchtime crowd at the Western Steer Steakhouse with stories.

Liberty University is the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to be a ''boot camp for training young champions for Christ."

Falwell says he is also aiming to have a football program that, to evangelical Christians, is the same "as Notre Dame is to the Roman Catholics or Brigham Young is to the Mormons. The difference is, there are many more evangelical Christians out there."

So Falwell has hired Rutigliano and is building quite a football team. The Flames (4-0) are ranked No. 8 in the NCAA Division I-AA poll and will play Villanova (1-2) at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at Villanova Stadium.

And Rutigliano is playing the Liberty Football Booster Club crowd four days before the game like a preacher on the stump. He tells stories, or parables, if you will.

There's a story about how the golfer Tony Lema used to quit tournaments he had no chance to win until Ben Hogan explained that "you learn how to win by losing." And a story about how a great runner didn't learn to excel at his specialty, the hurdles, "until he learned to focus and not worry about the hurdles, just the finish line."

He talked about the night he was fired by the Cleveland Browns and prayed to God "to tell me what to say," then remembered that Branch Rickey always said that luck was the residue of design, so the only thing to do was to design some more luck.

As he paused for breath, one of the men put down his fork, swallowed his chopped sirloin and asked: "Coach, you gonna start running some routes down the sidelines or somethin' and get ole L.G. (Parrish) free to catch some balls?"

"Excellent suggestion," Rutigliano replied. "I'll think about it."

After spending 18 years in the NFL (seven as head coach of the Cleveland Browns), Rutigliano has learned two truths.

"Christians want to win," he says. "And they know their football."


If there is a parable to explain the unlikely rise of Liberty University and its comprehensive Division I athletic program, try the one about Christ feeding the multitudes with a loaf of bread.

In 1971, Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College. Lynchburg, a town of about 70,000, is 40 miles from the nearest interstate highway and surrounded by the Blue Ridge mountains. It is not easy to find.

Yet enrollment doubled in one year, doubled again in two more. A 4,000-acre campus, compact and functional, was built at the top of Candler's Mountain Road. In 1975, enrollment stood at 1,569, and the name was changed to Liberty Baptist College. In 1985, enrollment had risen to nearly 5,000, and the name was changed to Liberty University.

As the student body expanded, so did the athletic program. First, the school competed in a Christian college athletic association. Next it was NAIA, then NCAA Division II. In 1988, the entire athletic program became Division I. By the turn of the century, Falwell expects his football team to compete at the Division I-A level, with the Notre Dames and Brigham Youngs.

"They might have to wheel me onto the field," the 57-year-old Falwell said, "but I expect to be there."

What Falwell expects, he normally gets on his campus.

Male students wear shirts and ties, and females wear skirts and blouses, until 4:30 p.m. every day. Lights go out in the non-coed dorms between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. There's no TV allowed in the dorms. Attendance at the local movie triplex is prohibited. So are drinking, dancing and smoking. There is a prom dinner instead of a dance. There is mandatory drug testing. For the entire student body. There is no swearing. Members of the opposite sex cannot be in any unlit campus areas together after dusk.

"There are certainly many young men who would not want this Christian lifestyle," Rutigliano says. "As a coach, it is up to me to make sure I make everything clear. But there are also many good football players out there who want what we offer. And many, many parents who want to send their children away and get a good child back."

All of the students, including football players, attend chapel on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. They attend church service Wednesday nights and twice on Sundays.

"Sometimes it's hard," Jimmy Woods says. Woods, a senior, is a linebacker wise in the Liberty Way (which happens to be the title of the 111-page book of rules students and employees must follow).

"Especially Wednesdays. You've had class and practice and dinner. Then you have to get dressed up again and go to church. Sometimes the freshmen struggle with that. It is something that is important to do, though. And it helps make you a very disciplined person."

Rutigliano, an Italian Catholic from Brooklyn, would seem an unlikely choice to be marching his football charges off to chapel.

But in 1962, Rutigliano fell asleep at the wheel of his car. In the crash, his 4-year-old daughter, Nancy, was killed. "I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior then," he said. "It's how I was able to get on with my life."

When he was fired by the Browns after the 1984 season, Rutigliano did some television broadcasting and inspirational speaking. He turned down two NFL head coaching jobs and several major-college offers.

"I had found my life outside football fulfilling," he said. "I was enjoying myself."

A longtime admirer of Falwell, Rutigliano met him in 1988, and Falwell asked Rutigliano to speak at a campus chapel service.

"Afterwards," Rutigliano said, "Dr. Falwell asked me if I was interested in getting back into coaching. I said I wasn't. He said if I ever changed my mind, I should consider Liberty."

Rutigliano found himself intrigued by the thought of "teaching Christian young men football."

A few months later, he called Falwell, and the two met at LaGuardia Airport in New York. "Sam said he'd like the job," Falwell said. "I hired him. We never even talked money."

Last year, Rutigliano's first, the Flames went 7-3 and upset I-A Eastern Michigan, 25-24. Tight end Eric Green was a first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This week, in only their third I-AA season, the Flames reached their highest ranking yet. "It is very exciting," Falwell said. "It's a big step."

Falwell, who has no evidence of his love of sports in his sparsely furnished office, tries to attend every football game and is on the sidelines during many practices. He sees no conflict in committing large amounts of money to building a strong athletic program.

"There are two ways to reach young people," Falwell says. "Sports and music." Falwell, a big bear of a man, played football, baseball and basketball as a teen. He didn't much like music, at least rock music.

So there's no rock music at Liberty. But there is an 8,500-square-foot weight room. A 12,000-seat stadium (opened last year and expandable to 36,000 seats). And a 9,000-seat dome that will open this winter and house the basketball teams.

"If a Christian girl in California hears about the Liberty football team," Rutigliano says, "and decides to come to school here, then we've won."

And if the players get taunted by the opposition - "We get called Jerry's kids a lot," Woods says - they just smile, walk away and come back hitting harder.

Some players will choose an opponent and talk to him about Christ after the game. Most don't listen.

"But if somebody does, that's great," Woods says. "And the better we get, the more people listen. We must be getting better, too. Hardly anybody calls us 'Jerry's kids' anymore. We're just football players."

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