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Reflecting on Dr. Falwell's Athletics Legacy and Impact

May 16, 2007
|  Lynchburg, Va.
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Dr. Falwell, Liberty’s No. 1 athletics fan, crowd surfs through the student section in the Vines Center at a basketball game.

Dr. Falwell, Liberty's No. 1 athletics fan, crowd surfs through the student section in the Vines Center at a basketball game.

Official University Announcement - May 15, 2007

Dr. Jerry Falwell bio

WSLS TV (Channel 7) Report - Jerry Falwell the Sports Fan

May 15, 2007, will long be remembered as not only a day the University lost its Founder and Chancellor, but the record books will show it was also the day the Athletics Department saw its No. 1 fan pass away when Dr. Jerry Falwell went home to be with the Lord.

Dr. Falwell, one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century, often said there were two avenues by which he was going to grow a world-class University –music and athletics – knowing these two focal points speak the most to the youth of every generation.

From the moment Lynchburg Baptist College opened its doors in 1971, meeting with 154 students in classrooms at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., Dr. Falwell quickly implemented plans to field athletics programs.

In 1972, the Flames gained affiliation with the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association and the University fielded its first team, men's basketball, which posted a 7-1 record during its first season of competition. Shortly thereafter, the University began to add programs, starting with football in 1973.

During subsequent years, Liberty's athletics programs began to move up the collegiate ladder, from NCCAA to NAIA until the Flames became a full-fledged NCAA Division I member on September 1, 1988. 

Dr. Falwell celebrating women's basketball's Cinderella Run in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, culminating in a trip to the Sweet 16.

Liberty now fields 18 NCAA Division I athletics programs which compete at the highest level of intercollegiate competition, fulfilling Dr. Falwell's vision of being "Champions for Christ" in whatever field of calling the Lord leads.

Although individuals from the outside world will remember Dr. Jerry Falwell as a conservative televangelist who energized the nation and the world to return to God, the thousands of student-athletes who have donned a Flames uniform over the three decades will remember him as their top supporter.

Dr. Falwell rarely missed a home football or basketball game, overlooking the Flames' gridiron battles from the press box at Williams Stadium or in the first row opposite the team benches at the Vines Center.

It wasn't strange to catch a glimpse of Dr. Falwell sitting in the dugout at home softball games or on the benches while Liberty was on the pitch playing soccer. And those trying to reach Dr. Falwell during a sunny spring Central Virginia afternoon had to walk down the hill from his office at the "Mansion" as he would normally be at Worthington Stadium, with a hot dog and drink in hand, cheering his baseball boys to victory.

A proud Dr. Falwell looks on as former Flames' football standout and current NFL player Sam Gado returns to address the student body at convocation.

Dr. Falwell's attendance at an athletic event spurred numerous Liberty teams to victory and quickly energized a crowd who responded with the infamous "JERR-EE" chant. During the late 90's, the daring and larger-than-life character would regularly walk across the Vines Center floor, climbing atop a packed student section where Flames fanatics would "crowd surf" their heroic leader.

But a Dr. Falwell sighting at a Flames athletic event was not just limited to Liberty Mountain, as he could also be seen following the Flames' athletic teams around the country.

Dr. Falwell was one of the last people to grab a piece of the cherished net when the men's basketball team claimed the Big South title down in Charleston, S.C., in 1994, followed by Liberty pushing No. 1 North Carolina to the brink in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

There wasn't a moment of rest for Dr. Falwell during basketball halftimes as fans would line up to get his autograph.

He was also the proudest of the Flames' faithful sitting courtside in College Park, Md., when the Lady Flames basketball program made their Cinderella Run to the Sweet 16 in 2005, arguably the most notable achievement in athletics department history.

During 2006, Dr. Falwell saw the revival of his precious Flames football program when Liberty posted the nation's No. 1 turnabout, shattering program attendance records in the process.

In light of his unwavering support over the years, the Athletics Department ceremonially retired a No. 71 football jersey at Liberty University's annual homecoming game on October 14, 2006 – bringing the Williams Stadium record-setting crowd of 15,631 to their feet with a roar of approval.

Dr. Falwell celebrates another men's basketball victory with former Flame Andre McIntrye.

And although he no longer physically will roam the sidelines at Flames athletics events, Dr. Falwell's presence will never be forgotten. His legacy and charge to be a "Champion for Christ" will live on as long as Liberty student-athletes take to the field of competition. 

By Todd Wetmore
Liberty University – Assistant AD for Media Relations

In light of his passing, several of Liberty's head coaches took some time to reflect on Dr. Falwell's impact on their lives personally and the athletics programs they have been charged by Dr. Falwell to guide.

"It has been a true privilege to know and work for Dr. Falwell over the past 15 months. His vision and goal for the athletics program has been made perfectly clear to all of us. As we move forward at this time, our resolve has never been greater to ensure that his vision for athletics does not dim. Our entire department will dig deeper, work harder and fight all the necessary battles needed to ensure that his dream for Liberty athletics is fulfilled."
Jeff Barber, Director of Athletics 

"Dr. Falwell was our No. 1 fan and supporter. He had a very clear vision of what Liberty athletics will one day become."
Danny Rocco, Head Football Coach

Dr. Falwell helps cut down the nets after the women's basketball team's upset victory at the 1997 Big South Tournament, starting Liberty's string of 10-consecutive conference championships.

"Before meeting Dr. Falwell for the first time, I was like many who only had a perception of him and what he stood for. Having the opportunity to meet him personally and spend time with him, I can tell you he is one of the greatest men I have ever met. Simply because of his integrity and his ability to inspire people through his mission, he was such a spiritual giant in this day and age. We are sad to see him go, but know that his legacy at Liberty University will be blessed for years to come."
Ritchie McKay, Head Men's Basketball Coach

"I thank God for Dr. Falwell and his personal investment in my life. He has served as a compass to the truth of God's love. He epitomizes the Good Shepherd, encouraging and nurturing as a true friend. He has taught me many life lessons and I am grateful for the opportunity to be acquainted with a Godly visionary, the greatest I will ever witness."
Carey Green, Head Women's Basketball Coach

Before making the program's second trip to the NCAA Tournament, Dr. Falwell prayed with the men's basketball program in the Vines Center.

"My family and I will be forever indebted to Dr. Falwell. As I begin my 20th year at Liberty, I have had two major trials that Dr. Falwell came along beside me and helped me deal with. My father died 10 years ago from a brain aneurysm and I remember him praying with me over the phone when I was at my father's bedside during one of the most difficult weeks of my life. Then five years ago, my daughter Grayson was born with a rare auto-immune system deficiency and he prayed with us at the hospital during her initial stay there and every day since. Every time I ran into him, the first things out of his mouth were questions about how my little girl was doing and assurances that he was praying for complete healing for her. He was an inspiration for me, my family and our men's soccer program. His willingness to serve God daily is the model that our entire athletics program and our men's soccer program will try to live up to daily. I will always have love and admiration for him and his family and for his willingness to invest his life into the life of my family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family during this difficult time."
Jeff Alder, Head Men's Soccer Coach

"Dr. Falwell is an individual who has impacted my life in a profound way. He was my Chancellor, my pastor and my mentor. I have had the privilege to sit under his teaching, to be inspired by his deep faith, and to be challenged by his vision to impact the world in which we live. This vision will burn bright within me as I submit myself to the mission wherewith He has called."
Jesse Castro, Head Wrestling Coach

Dr. Falwell helps cut the ribbon at the official opening of the Tolsma Indoor Track Center in 2005.

"It's not often that you meet someone so completely committed to serving the Lord as Dr. Falwell was. And it's just as rare and refreshing when you meet someone who encompasses the vision that Dr. Falwell had. It's truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to serve under a man who was able to put those two together with passion and integrity. He has left a legacy and a University that will remember and celebrate his life for many years to come. When our team looks for a model of how to serve the Lord with our talents, we will not need to search any farther than the life of Dr. Falwell. Thank you for being the leader that God called you to be."
Chris Johnson, Head Men's and Women's Tennis Coach

"Dr. Falwell was such an inspiration to everyone at Liberty, but as athletes, his energy and unwavering faith provided a platform for us to go out and represent the Lord and our University with real purpose." 
James Price, Head Women's Soccer Coach

Always wanting to be close to the action, Dr. Falwell joined the Lady Flames soccer team on the bench for a game at the Liberty Soccer Field.

"Dr. Falwell was a great inspiration for the golf program. His vision for athletics at Liberty was motivating and is a major factor in drawing our athletes and myself to this program. The golf team's desire to create a nationally-competitive program fell exactly in line with Dr. Falwell's goals and wishes for Liberty Athletics. We are excited to continue this mission and accomplish the objectives set before us for the glory of God."
Jeff Thomas, Head Golf Coach

"When people ask me about the athletic goal of the Liberty University track and field and cross country program, I tell them that the goal is to win the national championship. That is a goal I believe will happen some day. Sitting under the preaching of Jerry Falwell for 20 years has helped place that goal in my heart. His great faith was contagious, and you could not be under his influence without experiencing growth in your own faith. Dr. Falwell served a ‘Big God' and he helped put you in touch with that God. The last time I heard him preach, he said, ‘You are indestructible until you have finished the work God has called you to do.' Clearly his work is now done, but his influence will carry on. Our work in Liberty athletics is not yet done. Dr. Falwell has inspired us to lift up the name of Jesus Christ in college athletics and to demonstrate the excellence that results from living according to Biblical principles."
Brant Tolsma, Head Men's and Women's Track and Field/Cross Country Coach

Whether it was at home or on the road, Dr. Falwell always was willing to pray for God's blessing on each of Liberty's athletics teams, including the volleyball team just before they faced Notre Dame in the 1997 NCAA Tournament.

"Dr. Falwell has left a legacy of leadership, vision, integrity and an example of living by faith. He will be remembered as a ‘Giant of the Faith' with a pastor's heart. He challenged our athletics department to compete at the highest level and instilled the confidence in players and coaches to be our best for Christ. Just to see his black truck parked out alongside our left field line and hear him toot the horn after a home run encouraged us to strive to win and motivated us to play to the glory of God. It has been a distinct honor to work for him and call Dr. Falwell my boss, my pastor and most importantly, my friend. He will be forever missed."
Paul Wetmore, Head Softball Coach

Dr. Falwell donning a complete Liberty Flames baseball uniform during the early years of the program.

"Dr. Falwell's vision made its first impact on my life as a child when my dad would have the Old Time Gospel Hour on television on Sunday mornings. At that time, I had no idea at the age of 28 that God would call me to Liberty University for seminary, where I would feel and see his vision first hand. Then in 2004, I was given the opportunity to help champion the vision through athletics when I was hired as the head volleyball coach. There have been numerous times in the last couple of years that I was going after a big recruit and I would call Dr. Falwell to see if he had time to meet with the student-athlete and family. He made the time for every one of them. For me, his commitment to being the best and his commitment to training champions for Christ has forever changed my life. Now it is our turn and our responsibility to carry the vision forward and as Dr. Falwell always said, ‘finish strong'."
Shane Pinder, Head Volleyball Coach

On October 14, 2006, the Athletics Department retired a No. 71 football jersey in honor of Dr. Jerry Falwell, who is and will always be Liberty's No. 1 fan.