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Season of Firsts: Strong Leadership Helps Flames Football Make History
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell told the Flames Football team that he had waited since 1973, when he attended Liberty's first football game at age 11, to witness the celebration that erupted in the locker room after the 26-21 defeat of James Madison University on Nov. 29. It marked Liberty's first trip to the playoffs.
"I was so proud of Athletic Director Jeff Barber, Coach Turner Gill, and the players for finally breaking down that barrier for Liberty University," said Falwell, who received the game ball from Gill in the locker room that night. "It was a combination of 40 years of waiting, praying, hoping. I told the players that they were the team with the character and the heart to push it over the line for us, and that every penny we'd invested in that program was now worth it."
Last Saturday, the team faced another top-ranked team, No. 5 Villanova, in the second round. After a hard-fought game on Villanova turf, the Flames ended a successful season with a 29-22 loss. The game was further proof that Liberty has what it takes to be a contender for a national championship.
For those who watched Liberty University and its football program being built from the ground up more than 40 years ago, the milestones reached in the 2014 season hold even more significance. They mean that the original vision of Liberty's founder, the late Dr. Jerry Falwell, to use athletics to reach young people and bring national exposure to the university and its mission, is being fulfilled.
"I think what's different about us is we have the potential to be the only conservative evangelical Christian school to play at the highest levels of the NCAA, and that was the vision for Liberty from the beginning," Falwell said. "That's what our goal has always been."
The nation got a peek into Liberty's "football crusade" in a New York Times feature in 2012, where the reporter acknowledged, "There is no pulpit as well lighted as the end zone of a national championship game" and that Liberty may well be headed there. Last summer, Liberty's aspirations were reported once again by USA Today, which covered the university's dreams of moving to the FBS level for athletics and the "high-resource reality" that it could happen. Falwell told the reporter: "Athletics isn't our mission, but it has the potential to shine a light on our mission like nothing else ever can."
The light is certainly shining brighter now.
The Right Time
Jeff Barber arrived on the scene in 2006 as Liberty's director of athletics, after more than a decade of working for a nationally known collegiate athletics program at the University of South Carolina. Since then, he has spearheaded an impressive number of improvements and new construction projects to equip coaches with world-class facilities that have boosted the programs and helped them recruit next-level student-athletes.
A multi-million dollar expansion to Williams Stadium, the home of Liberty's football program, was completed in 2010, and was nationally recognized as one of the top FCS facilities in the country by the Sports Network. Over the last seven years, Liberty has constructed new athletics venues for baseball, softball, field hockey, tennis, golf and lacrosse, plus given state-of-the-art renovations to the playing and practice facilities for basketball, volleyball, soccer, and track and field.
In 2012, Barber's efforts were recognized when he was named the FCS Under Armour AD of the Year for the Southeast Region by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
"When Jeff came, he had a real vision for what he wanted to see happen at Liberty," Falwell said. "He had an eye for how he thought the facilities should look and just making it classy in every way. He had the right advice for me on how to get us from where we were to the next level. All of our programs would not be where they are now if it weren't for Jeff Barber coming in."
Asked why he would leave such a nationally known program to take the helm at Liberty, Barber said, "God orchestrated the whole thing."
"Everything that I did in the 20 years before I came here was really preparing me for what Liberty needed at this time in their history," he said.
Hearing the vision for Liberty athletics for the first time sealed the deal.
"As a Christian, I bought into that (vision) immediately, and I understood what it is. I've been in the SEC, I've been in other conferences, and I've seen firsthand what a successful athletics program can do, how it can affect a school, and I can't think of a better school to be affected by a quality top 20 college football program than Liberty University," Barber said. "It's a school that's sending out Christian teachers, Christian aviators, and Christian nurses, and athletics is just a tool to build this university. For me, it was about seeing the vision and then knowing that I could also play a small part in helping that come to reality."
Barber's leadership at Liberty has yielded an unprecedented seven consecutive Big South Sasser Cup trophies and 63 conference titles.
Barber points to the commitment and support that President Falwell has shown the football program that has allowed it to achieve this level of success.
"He has always been very supportive of it, from the coaching staff to the facilities to all the pieces that are part of the football program. President Falwell is 100 percent behind us."
One of those pieces was the joint decision to bring Turner Gill on board as head coach in December 2011. The former All-America quarterback from Nebraska and former head coach at Kansas and Buffalo brought his winning college football background to the Flames as its eighth head coach.
When Liberty began its search for a new coach, Falwell said the goal was to find "the best Christian college football coach in the country."
"It seemed like every consultant we talked to, it all came back to Turner Gill," he said. "We interviewed him and saw immediately why. … I've watched him in the last few weeks, and over the last three years, and I've seen him build character in the players that I never saw before. They have so much heart on the field. No matter how far down they are, they don't quit fighting. They keep coming back. I just think that comes from a coach who leads by example. He's definitely the right man, in the right place, at the right time for Liberty."
Gill said his own decision to come to Liberty was not unlike Barber's — the challenge was intriguing. When President Falwell laid out the goal for the football program — going to the FBS level — Gill said that's what excited him about the job.
"I had coached and played at the FBS level … I thought it was very exciting that with my experience I could help this university accomplish that goal," he said. "They told me, ‘We don't know when it's going to happen, but we know it's going to happen.' So I just took a leap of faith."
Gill's experience had prepared him for the challenge, too.
"People told me that I would never end up playing quarterback. I went to the University of Nebraska and established myself as an African American quarterback — my family always talked about it, that it would be someday and how come it couldn't be me?" he said. "I've always been able to prove something to people; give me an opportunity and I will see if I can do it. This situation (coming to Liberty) was very similar to some of the things that happened in my life and brought me to where I am today."
It was a decision he has never regretted.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be at this university because of all of the people that have been here before me — the late Dr. Jerry Falwell, the mission, the vision, the core values he set before us," Gill said. "For me to have the opportunity to try and live up to that is amazing. I've still got some work to do, but I'm hoping to be a good example of that."
The Faith Factor
For both Barber and Gill, the chance to merge their faith into their careers was a major draw.
"It's the first thing we start from, whether we are hiring staff, or hiring coaches, it has to start with faith; it has to start with a Christian coach, Christian staff, people who believe in what Liberty stands for, and not only believe it, but embrace it," Barber said. "I don't think we could be successful in this business at Liberty if we have people who try to hide the fact that we're a Christian university when they are Christians themselves. That's what makes us unique and it gives us an opportunity to do things at a very high level."
There is hardly ever an interview with Coach Gill where you won't hear him say, "To God be the Glory." His faith is obvious, bold, and genuine — on and off the field.
"The goal, number one, is to honor God, to be an example for Him as a man of God, as a husband, as a father — and when I say a father I am also talking about as a ‘father' of these student-athletes that I coach and I teach — and also to represent this university well, training Champions for Christ," Gill said.
He uses Scripture as his foundation.
"I'm always starting from where the Bible says how we need to act," Gill said. "I can freely speak about Scripture and give examples of what it says about how men need to be acting in the game of football, their academics, their spiritual life, their social life. It is a great feeling for me to know that I can walk into work every single day and I don't have to worry about what I say, how I say it, that it is about the Lord and I can freely do that."
For Barber and Gill, their faith has also been a foundation for a great working relationship. The two pray together regularly, during weekly meetings, in a hotel room the night before a road game, and sometimes even on the field before kickoff.
And just as athletes are trained to do, the Flames have followed the lead of their athletic director and coach, shining their own light for the Lord.
"I watch our team praying together with the other team after the game, win or lose," Falwell said. "That's what's so unique and special about our program — that's the difference. Their faith gives them an advantage in knowing that there's something greater than the ball game. When the losses come, they're not as bitter because they know there's more to life than just winning or losing, and when the wins come, they're even that much sweeter."