Check out the Liberty (hoops) women

Megan   web 1 This story from the Baltimore Sun has been hanging around in my imagination for several days. Let’s just say that I find it hard to ignore a story that starts with this lead:

The Rev. Jerry Falwell doesn’t body surf anymore.

In years past, Liberty University’s famed founder and chancellor, a self-described “sports nut,” occasionally allowed himself to be passed hand by hand up seating sections by delighted students during football and basketball games at the Lynchburg, Va., school. But with age creeping up on him, the 72-year-old has mellowed a bit.

Yes, I searched for a picture of that.

The goal of this story by reporter Joshua Cooley is to describe some of the challenges that Liberty University faces in its quest to have a football team that can compete at the I-A level of NCAA competition. Recruiting can be tough, after all, for a perfectly logical reason:

There is a modest dress code, curfew (midnight most days), three mandatory convocation services each week and many other regulations, including prohibitions on dancing, R-rated movies and certain music. Any infraction, even during semester breaks, is subject to a strict system of reprimands. As with all other students, these are the conditions that athletes on Liberty’s teams are expected to conform. … According to redshirt junior linebacker Manny Rojas, a four-year Liberty veteran, each year brings new complaints about the rules from the incoming freshman class, but they usually fade with time.

None of this is surprising, especially not for me (as a former sports editor at Baylor University, the world’s largest Southern Baptist university). Baylor has — cue the theme from “Jaws” — had its struggles competing in the lofty air of the Big 12 and people have always linked this with tough classrooms and the alleged Baptist atmosphere on campus. Let’s just say that my alma mater has rarely achieved a state of bliss.

But back to the Liberty story. I think this report misses, or buries, two stories that are much more interesting than the football angle. The first is one that I have seen my own journalism students write on two different campuses. When Christian schools recruit non-believers to beef up their teams, what happens to these student athletes? Are they treated with sympathy and compassion? Do some happily convert and live changed lives? To some rebel? Do tensions exist? Do some students try to browbeat them into converting? Or (hint, here is the answer) is the truth “all of the above”? Whatever. This is interesting territory.

But here is the story I wonder about and it skips by way down in the body of the story:

Even in this unique environment, most of the Flames’ athletic teams have thrived at one point or another and won Big South Conference titles. The women’s basketball team is seeking its 10th straight conference crown, and, last year, thanks in large part to 2005 WNBA lottery pick Katie Feenstra, it defeated Penn State and DePaul en route to the school’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.

Stop and read that again. They have won 10 straight titles in women’s basketball?

Now when you see something like that you have to stop and think: What is it in the nature of this school that allows that to happen? What is drawing those young women to Liberty and keeping them there? What’s the connection? What is unique about these teams and these coaches? Do we see similar success, or at least unusual success, in other similar programs? I sense the presence of a ghost and, maybe, more than one.

One thing for sure, there is a good Godbeat story in there somewhere.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Stephen Moore

    No mention of women’s basketball would be complete with mention of Wayland Baptist College (now University) in Plainview, TX. This small, very conservative college began its program in the 1940′s and was the dominant team until Title IX forced the funding of women’s basketball in the major universities. After that point they could no longer compete with the big bucks. There are some amazing statistics from that period: 131 game winning streak, dozens of All-American players, etc. In order to find real competition, they played against some of the semi-pro teams from that period, still winning handily most of the time.

    The college is still quite conservative. Though the rules have been relaxed some now, when I attended in the late ’60s, they still required three days per week chapel attendance, no smoking on campus, strictly segregated and curfewed dorms.

    I don’t think the university has ever had an attendance of more than 1000, though these days they probably have more students than that via their remote campuses.

  • The Once Dead Poet

    It is amazing to me to see how some schools are able to maintain their values and remain competitive. I applaud schools like Liberty and Wayland and others who have refused to compromise for the sake of athletics. Living in Texas, I have had the unfortunate ability to see the other side of the spectrum…Take for example TCU, who now tells their prospective students that the “C” in TCU can stand for whatever you want it to. Why? To attract more students. It didn’t hurt their sports programs either. It is sad when you have to compromise your faith in order to grow your university.

  • Heminator

    “It is amazing to me to see how some schools are able to maintain their values and remain competitive.”

    That may be true for smaller sports and smaller divisions, but I don’t imagine that it holds up well once you hit the NCAA big leagues.

    I was raised Mormon (now Lutheran) and I’ve heard all sorts of eyebrow-raising stories about athletes at BYU, despite the fact that Provo is extremely staid and the university zealously enforces “standards and practices” among the student population. Most of the stories are hearsay, but I do know that my hellion sister somehow let my parents ship her off to BYU in the early 80′s and spent a good deal of time partying with Jim McMahon when he was there.

    Anyway, I think high profile athletics are inherrently corrupting — they certainly were at large state school I attended.

  • Eric Phillips

    In my experience, the women who are best at sports tend to be over-achievers in general, likely to succeed at other areas of life too, while the men who are best at sports tend to make that their life and ignore everything else. Could it be that overachieving women like Liberty for exactly the same reasons that jocks don’t? Maybe even _because_ jocks don’t?

  • Warren

    I witnessed Jerry body-surfing. I was always careful to sit away from Jerry and his “posse” at basketball games. It was not a pretty sight — and I’m sure that the current LU students are pretty happy that their chancellor has decided not to do that anymore. Jerry’s not as thin as he used to be — and he was never thin.

  • tmatt


    No one really willing to dig into the 10 championships in a row for the lady Liberty crowd. Why would many young women AND THEIR PARENTS prefer this kind of Christian school to secular schools with larger programs and more prestige?

  • dw

    Why? Probably for the same reason that Oral Roberts did so well in basketball and baseball back in the 70s. Money. Jerry’s been pumping money into the athletic programs like crazy, and money means you have shiny new balls and nice equipment you can impress the teenage girls with. And money buys you good coaching. I’m willing to bet, too, that the players they recruit aren’t entirely buyers into the Falwellian theological system. I mean, the guys at ORU sure weren’t.