LYNCHBURG, VA – DECEMBER 09: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. poses for a portrait on the campus of Liberty University on Wednesday December 09, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

LYNCHBURG, Va. — On a wall in Jerry Falwell Jr.’s office suite hangs a framed letter from a legend of 20th century higher education — the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh.

“Dear Jerry,” the president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame wrote on Nov. 12, 2012, to the president of Liberty University. Hesburgh had just read an article in the New York Times about Liberty’s ambitions to gain national exposure through football. The evangelical Christian school hoped its team, known as the Flames, would follow the trail to football fame blazed by the Fighting Irish from the prestigious Catholic university in South Bend, Ind.

“I want to wish you all the best — just to encourage you from starting very small and arriving in the big time!” Hesburgh wrote. He reminisced about a time decades ago when an underdog Notre Dame team, with just 16 players on its roster, defeated Army at West Point. “We won and it launched us into the big time!

“I think you are on that trajectory now, Jerry, and I just wanted to write you, to encourage you, and to wish you all the best. With sincere congratulations and prayers for continuing growth in the years to come.”

Hesburgh, who died this year, was a longtime Notre Dame president who helped build that university into an elite institution after World War II. The framed letter is a telling reminder of what drives Falwell.

[The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh: 1917-2015]

Three years after Falwell received Hesburgh’s missive, Liberty is still waiting for a chance to move into college football’s big time. The Flames play in the Big South Conference, part of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA). They have not yet received an invitation to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A), the upper echelon of teams, including Notre Dame, that get wide national television exposure and compete to play in bowl games.

Falwell, in an interview here last week, said Liberty would be prepared to respond to any FBS invitation within 48 hours. It has a 19,200-seat stadium, with a 110-foot viewing tower and 18 luxury suites. It has extensive programs to support its players.

Playing in FBS would put Liberty in the company of schools like Notre Dame and Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, Falwell said.

“My athletic director says this all the time: With parents and students, a lot of times the way they perceive your school is, you are who you play,” Falwell said. “Rightly or wrongly, that’s just the reality.”

Notre Dame’s reputation, of course, is driven by much more than football. Hesburgh spent much of his presidency building the university into an educational powerhouse. He also ensured that the Vatican did not meddle with Notre Dame’s academic freedom.

Liberty’s reputation still rests largely on the Falwell name and on the school’s prominence in the political world. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the university’s founder, was a famous television preacher and a key figure in the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 90s. Now, Liberty is a frequent stop on the campaign trail for Republican politicians, and occasionally for Democrats. When Falwell Jr. spoke out this month about his desire for more Liberty students to carry concealed weapons on campus, as a safety measure to deter terrorists, his comments reinforced the sense that Lynchburg is a frequent dateline for political stories.

But Falwell said that he does not want to make news. He said his speech on Dec. 4 about guns was unplanned — an impromptu set of remarks after the Heritage Foundation’s president, Jim DeMint, finished a speech earlier than planned.

“We’re not a church, we’re not a business, we’re not a political organization,” he said. “We’re a university.” 

With 14,000 residential students and 66,000 online, Liberty has become a major player in online education.

Falwell said Liberty is focused heavily on moving its athletic program into the top ranks of the NCAA. It also is expanding its campus and starting to invest in research. Until now, officials said, the school has been mainly focused on teaching. In addition, Liberty wants to keep developing its profile as a political venue. Falwell said the school is in conversations with the Republican National Committee about hosting a presidential debate in February.

Falwell said the university has no political or religious litmus tests. “I’d say Liberty is Christian with a capital c, conservative with a small c,” he said. Many of its students lean to the right, politically. “It’s not required. It’s not what we seek,” Falwell said. “It’s what we attract.”

This item has been updated.


LYNCHBURG, VA – DECEMBER 09: A portion of Liberty University is seen on Wednesday December 09, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA. The university was founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)