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Flames Rising: How Liberty Football’s humble beginnings have led to national success, Fiesta Bowl selection

Flames Football’s first-year Head Coach Jamey Chadwell and his players celebrate the team’s Conference USA Championship game triumph over New Mexico State on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, at Williams Stadium. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

The 50th year of Liberty University Football, and first under the direction of Head Coach Jamey Chadwell, has turned into a season of jubilation, capped by a Conference USA Championship victory over New Mexico State at Williams Stadium on Dec. 1.

Flames fans stormed the field that night while junior running back Quinton Cooley, who scored three touchdowns in the 49-35 triumph, jumped for joy with a series of back flips.

That spectacular finish to Liberty’s first season in the CUSA set the stage for the spontaneous celebration that followed its selection to the program’s first New Year’s Six game, the Jan. 1 Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium, home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals near Phoenix.

This storybook season is one of triumph born of tragedy, following the Aug. 5 death of freshman offensive lineman Tajh Boyd, 18. The Flames played the season in memory of Boyd, with red-shirt senior offensive lineman X’Zauvea Gadlin adopting his No. 77 for the CUSA Championship game.

The Flames (13-0), ranked No. 23 in the College Football Playoff (CFP) poll, hope to ring in the New Year with promise by upsetting No. 8 Oregon (11-2), which will be making its fourth Fiesta Bowl appearance.

Former Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze, who finished 34-15 in four seasons at Liberty and won all three bowl games he coached before leaving for Auburn University last December, is still a believer.

“Anytime you go undefeated in college football, regardless of what people say or don’t say about your schedule, something is really, really, really going good … in that building,” he said in a post-game press conference after Auburn’s season finale.

Chadwell, Liberty’s 10th football coach in 50 years, has made believers out of many along the journey to the CUSA title and Fiesta Bowl bid.

“If you would have said a year ago, taking this job, that this would have happened in the first year, I would have said, ‘No shot,’” he said. “But that’s a credit to the players, obviously. With man, it’s impossible, but with the Lord, anything is possible. It’s been amazing the favor that He has shown us through some challenges.”

Similar to the university as a whole, which celebrated its “golden” anniversary in 2021, the Flames’ Football program has made audacious leaps and bounds of faith on and off the field over the past five decades.

Liberty University founder Dr. Jerry Falwell addresses a gathering of faculty, students, and staff to cast his vision for the future of the school and its move to the current-day campus. (Photo by Les Schofer)

“It’s our plan to have our athletic program comparable to USC, to Notre Dame, to Alabama, to anybody in time,” Liberty founder Dr. Jerry Falwell said before the team kicked off its first season in 1973, two years after Liberty was founded as Lynchburg Baptist College.

However, like Liberty University itself, it could be considered a miracle that the Flames Football program survived the early years, considering the adversity endured in its first 12 seasons.

Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” was the life verse of Lee “Rock” Royer. He lived it out as the first head coach in the history of the Flames’ program until his death on Nov. 20, 1973, when the small plane he was flying south encountered tornadic winds and crashed in Alabama.

“Coach Royer was the ultimate man of God,” said Chip Smith, who became Lynchburg Baptist College’s first scholarship football player after Dr. Falwell recruited him away from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He never met somebody he didn’t try to lead to the Lord.”

Chip Smith was Liberty’s first scholarship athlete, in football and baseball.

As the team’s first captain and the player who scored the program’s first touchdown, Smith regularly ate breakfast with Royer and was the one of the last to see him alive after driving him to Falwell Airport for his ill-fated Thanksgiving flight to Louisiana.

“He thanked me and hugged me and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving,” Smith said.

Smith, who has trained more than 3,700 players who have gone on to the NFL (including seven Hall of Famers) through his Chip Smith Performance Systems facility near Atlanta, was impressed by the level of talent Royer assembled on such a fledgling team.

“For us, I am extremely proud of the fact that we laid the foundation,” said Smith, who also played baseball for the Flames under Head Coach Al Worthington. “God orchestrated it for us to go to Liberty and start that program (and) it was pretty amazing that He brought a bunch of really good players together, great men who have been successful in life and … still pray together.”

Royer was replaced by former Naval Academy quarterback John Cartwright, an assistant coach enrolled in the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary who guided the team to its first winning season in 1974 and carried on Royer’s mission of witnessing to and leading opposing players into personal relationships with Jesus Christ.

“For me, it was a blessing to play for Coach Royer, Coach Cartwright, and Coach Worthington, godly men who taught me so many examples about life, who loved us unconditionally, loved the Lord, developed relationships with us, and cared about us as people, not that we were good players or bad players,” Smith said.

Morgan Hout, Liberty’s fourth head football coach, directs quarterback Paul Johnson during a game at Lynchburg City Stadium in 1988.

The Flames have produced their fair share of professional players, with wide receivers Fred Banks and Kelvin Edwards becoming the first two to be selected in the NFL Draft — by the Cleveland Browns in the eighth round in 1985 and the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round in 1986, respectively. They were followed in rapid succession by many more under the tutelage of Morgan Hout, the Flames’ fourth head coach who died Nov. 1 at age 76, and former Cleveland Browns Head Coach Sam Rutigliano, who succeeded him in 1989.

“It is amazing how many guys have gotten drafted,” said former defensive back Richard Shelton (’89), the Flames’ third player drafted, by the Denver Broncos in the 11th round in 1989. He later joined tight end Eric Green (’90), Liberty’s fourth NFL draftee and first picked in the first round, as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1990s before becoming an NFL scout for the Philadelphia Eagles (2000-05) and the Tennessee Titans (2007-17) and being inducted into Liberty’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.

About 38 years after Hurricane Juan flooded out Liberty Football’s training facility on Treasure Island in 1985, Flames fans flooded Williams Stadium after the Dec. 1 CUSA Championship Game win over New Mexico State.

Nov. 6, 1985, was another day that lived in infamy for the program, when remnants of Hurricane Juan swept through Lynchburg, raising the James River 20 feet above flood stages and wiping out the Flames Football practice facility on Treasure Island, located near Riverside Park.

“It was really worse when I saw it than I thought it could ever be, and I thought it could be pretty bad,” Hout said at the time. “We’re by no stretch of the imagination down or discouraged. We just feel like the Lord’s going to use this as a steppingstone, and we’re excited.”

What seemed like another devastating blow to the program became a blessing in disguise as it led to the Flames moving their football operations from an island located across a rickety bridge on the James River and from hosting games at Lynchburg’s City Stadium to settling on campus in the location Dr. Falwell envisioned from the beginning. Williams Stadium opened in 1989 with 12,000 seats — it was later expanded in 2010 to become one of the best FCS stadiums in the country and again in 2019 to meet the 25,000-seat FBS requirements — and later adjoined by the Liberty Indoor Football Practice Facility, a spacious climate-controlled venue that opened in 2017 and houses the Flames Fan Fest game day festivities.

Flames junior quarterback Kaidon Salter earned CUSA Most Valuable Player honors this season. (Photo by Chase Gyles)

Administrators, coaches, and players have helped pave the way for the Flames to rise to new heights and fulfill the vision of Dr. Falwell as they moved to the FBS ranks in 2018. Smith said he is not surprised that Liberty has continued to flourish on the football field by developing a faith-filled family atmosphere.

“When I see what we’ve done in the Conference USA, and how fast we’ve grown since being in the FBS, it is pretty awesome, and I pray God will continue to use the program for His glory,” he said.

Since transitioning to the FBS level, Liberty has accumulated a 53-22 record including a 3-1 mark in bowl games, starting with back-to-back Cure Bowl titles in Orlando, Fla., in 2019-20 and the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in 2021. The Flames joined Appalachian State as the only programs to win bowl games in their first three seasons of bowl eligibility and are now the fastest to reach a New Year’s Six contest.

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis led the Flames, coached by Hugh Freeze, to a Cure Bowl victory over Coastal Carolina, coached by Jamey Chadwell, on Dec. 26, 2020. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

This season, Kaidon Salter, the HERO Sports Group of 5 Player of the Year, eclipsed current-Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis’ record-setting seasons in 2020 and 2021 — capped by MVP performances in both bowls — to post the greatest season ever by a Liberty quarterback. Salter earned CUSA Most Valuable Player honors after passing for 2,750 yards and rushing for 1,064 yards while boasting the FBS’s third-highest quarterback efficiency in the nation with 43 touchdowns (31 passing, 12 rushing).

Chadwell, recently named the  Paul “Bear” Bryant Group of 5 Coach of the Year making him one of eight finalists for the  overall Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year, orchestrated the most prolific rushing attack in the nation this season with his spread option offensive formation. It produced program records of 3,938 yards (302.9 per game) and 39 touchdowns on the ground, including 1,322 yards and 16 TDs by Cooley, who ranked No. 1 in CUSA in all-purpose yards.

Chadwell is also a semifinalist for the 2023 George Munger College Coach of the Year Award and a finalist for the 2023 Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, the last of which he won in 2020 while at Coastal Carolina, before being upset in overtime by Freeze’s Flames in the Cure Bowl.

“He’s exceptional,” Liberty Director of Athletics Ian McCaw, who was hired in November 2016, said of Chadwell. “We knew he was a great fit for the university when we hired him. He really fits our mission. He’s a really special individual. He’s got a great staff, and this program is really thriving under his leadership.”

Sparky and the Spirit of the Mountain Marching Band enter the Liberty Football Indoor Practice Facility before the CUSA title game on Dec. 1. (Photo by Chase Gyles)

Dr. Falwell always considered music and athletics to be universal languages for young people and a major draw in building a world-class educational institution, as well as two of the most effective means of reaching the next generation with the Gospel. Playing on New Year’s Day in a game broadcast on ESPN to millions of viewers is a prime example of that potential for outreach, albeit in a secular sports setting. Besides numerous students and alumni, Liberty will be sending its entire Spirit of the Mountain Marching Band to the Fiesta Bowl.

“It’s an opportunity unlike we’ve ever had before as a university, and just the amount of positive publicity that is going to come along with it, and national brand building we can do over this month, is going to be extraordinary,” McCaw said. “We are a national university in many ways, but this will really put us on a map with some constituents that don’t know a lot about Liberty, don’t know a lot about our mission, may not know that we have 120,000 online students and are one of the largest universities in the world, so it’s a great opportunity for us to tell our story to an extremely large audience.”

The Liberty Marching Band will be in Glendale, Ariz., in full force for the festivities leading up to the New Year’s Day Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. (Photo by Chase Gyles)

McCaw said many fans have signed up to be new Flames Club members to receive special discounts on Fiesta Bowl tickets, and the demand for Liberty’s 12,500-ticket allotment in the 72,200-seat stadium is rising.

“It’s a special time,” he said. “Flames Nation’s energized and they certainly are excited about it. We talk about being the fastest-rising program in America for our entire Athletics program, but certainly for football. No one has risen as quickly over that period of time, so we’re very thankful, very blessed. We need to really savor this. These types of opportunities do not come along very often so it’s a time to be grateful.”

“God’s hands have really been upon this football program throughout the season,” he added. “The vision was cast 50-plus years ago by Dr. Falwell to play football at this level (and) it doesn’t get any higher than playing in the Fiesta Bowl, which is one of America’s great bowl games. We want to put our best foot forward on Jan. 1.”

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