Liberty University announced this week that it intends to reclassify and join Division I’s top football subdivision, with the school playing a full FBS schedule starting in the 2019 season.
It’s been known for a while that Liberty wanted to join the highest division of football, so a formalized move upward isn’t a big surprise. What is surprising is how Liberty is doing it.
Right now, the Flames are looking to jump to FBS without conference affiliation. They’ll be competing as an independent, perhaps hoping to eventually land a spot in Conference USA, the Sun Belt, or the American.
If you squint really hard, you can see how this could work.
Liberty is in Virginia, a growing state that produces a fair amount of high school football recruits. They play in a great stadium by FCS standards, one with a capacity of 19,200 and that could be expanded to 30,000 or more.
They have a head coach with FBS head coaching experience (Turner Gill, from Buffalo and Kansas), and an AD with FBS experience (Ian McCaw from ... uh ... Baylor, which isn’t something to brag about right now).
And given their relationship with conservative evangelical churches (it was founded by Jerry Falwell, after all), perhaps a path towards becoming sort of evangelical BYU, with a national fan base, exists. That’s the plan.
This is a bad plan. Liberty is making a big mistake.
First, there’s the practical matter. What does a lower-level FBS independent hope to play for? At the FCS level, Liberty was a successful program, one that could compete for Big South titles and playoff appearances, and often did.
As an FBS independent, there’s no trophy. There’s no established postseason tie-in. With a small stadium and modest history, there are no home-and-homes with major, power-conference opponents. There’s no foreseeable path to the Playoff or even a New Year’s Six bowl game.
That’s a problem if you’re trying to continue to build fan interest, especially in a state with two ACC programs, a rapidly improving Old Dominion, an FCS powerhouse in James Madison, and lots of NFL fans. BYU — a program with fans all over the country, a national title, an ESPN contract, and a trophy case full of shiny awards — isn’t really a program Liberty can hope to emulate. And even BYU has struggled to secure meaningful bowl tie-ins. Instead, Liberty would just be another UMass, hoping to scrape together a schedule of cast-offs and the assorted paycheck game.
Liberty would also be without a lucrative conference television contract, in an era of even more dramatic gaps between the financials haves and have-nots. Even if Liberty is able to play into a conference in the next five years, changes in the industry may make those contracts even less valuable than they are now.
The Flames do have their own TV network, the Liberty Flames Sports Network, that can carry their games across the country, but there is a big difference between being on ESPN and being on Tri-State Christian Television. The Flames might be signing up for a world where they will be dramatically under-resourced for years.
And that’d be one thing if Liberty was trying to be a lower-level independent as a typical university, like UMass or New Mexico State. That life is already difficult, with tough schedules, long road trips, and lack of exposure.
But Liberty isn’t like other universities.
It’s one of the most conservative schools in the entire country, with a restrictive honor code, conservative views on student conduct and sexuality, and close ties to evangelical Christianity and conservative politics. Its prospective conference homes are dominated by secular state schools that might be hesitant to align with such a different institution.
BYU ran into similar problems while seeking Big 12 membership over the summer, as its honor code that forbids “homosexual behavior” inspired protest letters, eventually helping to scuttle their bid. Liberty is arguably an even more politically charged institution, and one that doesn’t have the athletic tradition or fanbase.
It’s also a school that has rapidly grown thanks to a massive influx of online students. According to the AFT Data Center, Liberty had an enrollment of nearly 50,000 students, making it the largest private school in the country, but over three-quarters were distance students. The school’s growth is tied to its ability to recruit online or distance students who can get federal aid. It’s in fine financial shape now (Liberty’s endowment is over a billion dollars), but if legislative or market conditions ever changed, the school could be in trouble.
That makes it a risky proposition as a conference expansion target even if the team becomes good at the FBS level.
The safer thing to do would be to continue building as an FCS program, competing for playoff bids, and growing the fan base.
By making this jump now, Liberty is banking on its ability to become such a strong football program that it’s able to overcome administrative objections and join a conference, or at least ride demographic ties towards a sustainable independence, like BYU or Notre Dame.
If that works, then Liberty is trading its ability to compete for FCS titles for a chance to occasionally win Conference USA. That might work, even if the wisdom is debatable. But becoming a successful program as an FBS Independent? That doesn’t seem likely. Any school jumping to FBS during these uncertain times is making a big risk. But for Liberty, it’s an even bigger risk.