Give me Liberty? Not unless one thing happens first.
That must be the mantra for the Sun Belt and Conference USA, the only two leagues in the Football Bowl Subdivision which would make sense as landing spots for the Liberty Flames, the latest program to gain the go-ahead for a transition to the FBS.
This is not a complicated point, and moreover, it shouldn’t be. If Liberty wants to join an FBS conference — and chances are it does — the university should be expected to do one thing before being granted that privilege.
The man in the cover photo for this story (above) is former Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw, the man in the seat of power when Art Briles looked the other way at a wave of alleged sexual assaults connected to Baylor football players. McCaw should no longer be allowed to work in collegiate athletic administration, in much the same way that Briles should never be allowed to coach again.
Yet, when his ship was sinking at Baylor, McCaw found a life raft at Liberty — yes, the school founded by Jerry Falwell and now led by his son, Jerry Jr. The McCaw hire was dubious then; it’s outrageous now. It will remain appalling — and grows more appalling — each day McCaw remains employed at the Lynchburg, Virginia, school.
The supremely dark detail which connects Baylor and Liberty is that both schools profess a deep and abiding adherence to Christian principles in the best of the conservative theological tradition. There isn’t one thing wrong with professing faith in a secular world; society needs value-anchored, value-oriented people and institutions to lend stability and integrity to young lives and families.
The inconvenient part about professing an adherence to old-fashioned Christian values is not the outwardly stated commitment itself. The problem emerges — and becomes very stormy to the point of complete disgust — when Christian institutions and their leaders so nakedly and blatantly ignore the missional principles they were supposedly founded upon.
Baylor, in the thirst for football riches and national prestige, chucked its ethics out the window and trampled on its moral imagination, at the expense of the safety and well-being of dozens of young women.
Liberty saw what Ian McCaw presided over in Waco, shrugged its shoulders, and didn’t give a flying fire truck about that disgraceful and prolonged series of incidents at Baylor.
Now comes Liberty, coveting football primacy by leaving the Football Championship Subdivision and initiating a move to the FBS, which was allowed to proceed on Thursday.
The Flames aren’t pursuing a New Year’s Six bowl bid or a College Football Playoff spot the way Baylor did, but they want the increased prominence and prestige offered by FBS football. They’ll start as an FBS independent, but they’ll soon want a conference — or at least, it’s hard to think the Flames won’t need it.
It’s not too hard to piece together. Conference membership gives FBS schools easier access to a bowl game. There’s nothing about Liberty which would give the Flames leverage in a bowl chase as an FBS independent. Notre Dame is Notre Dame. BYU has long been a unique national program, and even though its bowl deals are deficient relative to Power 5 brethren, the school will always be able to access a lower-tier bowl if nothing else. Army, as a service academy, will find a home for a bowl as long as it qualifies. Bowls will not turn down a chance to host a military institution, given the public-relations glow which often attends such an occasion.
Liberty would fall into the very lonely basket currently occupied by the University of Massachusetts, currently the lone FBS independent which has no special football brand, no television drawing power, and no situational characteristic which makes it a valued bowl property. If there’s ever a battle between a Mid-American Conference team and UMass for the 78th and final bowl slot, the MAC team would likely have the edge.
Conference membership would enable the Flames to fill two-thirds of their annual schedule without having to beg various Group of 5 schools for home-and-homes or one-off games. Coach Turner Gill could more fully define his recruiting strategy. Oh, here’s this minor detail, too: The league could also get on ESPN or CBS Sports Network every now and then.
Liberty will need a conference. Naturally, the AAC involves a much higher level of competition. The Mountain West and the MAC aren’t geographically compatible.
Only two realistic options exist: the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
We said this story was not complicated. Here it is, as simple as can be:
The Sun Belt and C-USA — more specifically, their commissioners and leadership structures — cannot allow Liberty to join their conferences until Ian McCaw is dismissed as athletic director.
This should be a slam-dunk for C-USA, whose commissioner is Judy MacLeod. Surely, the only female conference commissioner in the FBS will not allow a McCaw-led program into her league. This leaves Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson (formerly of the WAC) as the person who must insist that Liberty find a new captain for its athletic department.
Yes, it should be said that when Liberty begins life as an FBS independent — as part of its transition process — no FBS program should schedule the Flames until McCaw is gone. That point can’t go unmentioned here. However, Liberty can load up on FCS teams and not have to face the full consequences of its decisions. When the transitional period ends and the Flames need a conference to land in, Karl Benson and the Sun Belt have to say no… unless or until McCaw is out of the picture.
Meekly allowing the Flames to join an FBS conference would turn “Give me Liberty!” into a dark chapter in the history of college sports.