Some folks just can’t stick to sports.

A long-simmering debate over culture, religion and sports could boil over in Arizona when Liberty University’s football program arrives to play Oregon in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of Liberty, it hasn’t had anything to do with football, but that’s about to change.

“Our founder, Jerry Falwell, wanted Liberty to become an evangelical Christian version of what Notre Dame is for the Catholic community and what BYU is for the Mormon community,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said in a recent phone interview.

It’s a big goal, but the Flames burned so hot this season that the unheralded program earned a place on one of the biggest stages in college football. The Fiesta Bowl, as a New Year’s Six game, plays host each year to a premier matchup that attracts national attention.

But the impact off the field could be the greatest legacy of this game if conservative Christians have anything to say about it. (Maybe this is the momentum of the “Moral Majority?”)

“Our mission at Liberty is to train champions for Christ,” McCaw said. “We’re a Christian university. And Dr. Falwell, when he founded the university, felt that sports and music were to really good ways to connect with young people. The university has prioritized both of those, and it’s been a great way to really engage 18- to 22-year-olds.”

The school had just 154 students when it started as Lynchburg (Va.) Bible College in 1971. Today, Liberty comprises 15,000 residential students and another 125,000 online.

“We’re one of the largest universities in the world,” McCaw said. “A large part of it has been connecting through sports and music and having a really compelling mission.”

But does it work? Can football bring people to God? And how would you know? It’s not like you can go to heaven, count the souls and ask whether their salvation was connected to a bowl game.

A better way to examine it would be to look at the overwhelming scope of the connection between Christianity and college football.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he received a vision from God before winning a national championship.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made headlines for baptizing players on the practice field before he led his team to four national championship games in five years. And Texas Christian University won last season’s Fiesta Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff.

Certainly, someone somewhere drew inspiration from these stories. Add to that list Liberty, which went undefeated in 13 games on the way to a Conference USA title under head coach Jamey Chadwell, who is in his first season guiding the program.

But does the evangelistic mission add pressure? Isn’t it hard enough to win a football game without the burden of an eternal struggle between good and evil?

“I view my opportunity as this: The Lord has chosen our platform to be football coaches, and now we have an opportunity to impact the people in our program,” Chadwell said in a phone interview. “Because they love football, we get a chance to show them the love of Jesus, through how he has been in our lives, while they’re in our football program.

“Yes, our ultimate goal is for everybody who comes through here to have the opportunity to know Jesus as their lord and savior, that’s the ultimate goal. And if we can hopefully win some games on top of that, great.”

Chadwell sees his success this year as a blessing, but he views his failures of the past through the same lens.

“If you plant roots and water those roots every day where you’re at” by focusing on showing “young people what football can do for them down the road, beyond the football field, and what the love of Jesus does, I believe, wholeheartedly, that he’ll bless your time,” Chadwell said.

“Does that mean he’ll bless you with 13 wins? Sure. Does that mean he’ll bless you with 2 sometimes? Sure. It’s a harvest, right?”

Public schools could and sometimes do face legal pushback from First Amendment advocates who want to make sure coaches aren’t forcing their religion onto players.

But Liberty, as a private institution, faces no such challenges, although the school’s code of conduct is subject to derision from outsiders.

The Liberty Way opposes same-sex relationships and transgender identification.

There are also rules that limit one-on-one interactions between males and females, plus a strict dress code and curfew.

“On social media, we get hammered,” Chadwell said. “Because of our university and what we chose to stand for, yeah, we get hammered. … Are we perfect here? No. But every day we’re choosing to try to live to the standard that God calls us to.”

McCaw, the athletic director, takes it a step further.

“Liberty is not for every student, and every student is not for Liberty,” he said. “But for our constituency, and people who want a faith-based education and want to be around a Christian culture, this is a really attractive place to go to school.”

So, anyone who thinks sports should just be about sports — that coaches and players shouldn’t kneel during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality or use their platforms to speak out about social or cultural issues, for example — shouldn’t be rooting for Liberty, right?

Right?

Regardless, Liberty’s arrival as a football power has sparked a discussion over culture, religion and sports. People connected to the program seem to be embracing it.

“When Liberty has a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl, on national television, people are going to learn about our university and learn about our Christian commitment,” McCaw said. “It’s just going to help advance our brand as well as help advance the gospel.”

Reach Moore at gmoore@azcentral.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @SayingMoore.

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Expect faith and football to collide at the Fiesta Bowl

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28.12.2023

Some folks just can’t stick to sports.

A long-simmering debate over culture, religion and sports could boil over in Arizona when Liberty University’s football program arrives to play Oregon in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of Liberty, it hasn’t had anything to do with football, but that’s about to change.

“Our founder, Jerry Falwell, wanted Liberty to become an evangelical Christian version of what Notre Dame is for the Catholic community and what BYU is for the Mormon community,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said in a recent phone interview.

It’s a big goal, but the Flames burned so hot this season that the unheralded program earned a place on one of the biggest stages in college football. The Fiesta Bowl, as a New Year’s Six game, plays host each year to a premier matchup that attracts national attention.

But the impact off the field could be the greatest legacy of this game if conservative Christians have anything to say about it. (Maybe this is the momentum of the “Moral Majority?”)

“Our mission at Liberty is to train champions for Christ,” McCaw said. “We’re a Christian university. And Dr. Falwell, when he founded the university, felt that sports and music were to really good ways to connect with young people. The university has prioritized both of those, and it’s been a great way to really engage 18- to 22-year-olds.”

The school had just 154 students when it started........

© Arizona Republic


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