LYNCHBURG, Va. — They trickled out of the rain and into the classroom, taking their seats behind the long shared desks in Room 116.
Many of the students in Religion Hall on Liberty University’s sprawling campus hoped to be pastors — not an ambition here but a calling: to someday help interpret the gray areas separating right and wrong. This was Introduction to Pastoral Leadership, and not long after the morning session began, a familiar and divisive topic came up.
Almost two weeks ago, Liberty — whose roughly 80,000 students, including those taking online classes, make it the country’s largest evangelical Christian university — hired Ian McCaw as its athletic director. The announcement came less than six months after an investigation commissioned by Baylor, where McCaw was AD, found a “fundamental failure” by school and athletics officials to respond adequately to allegations of sexual violence by football players.
Coach Art Briles was fired, and university president Kenneth Starr was reassigned before eventually stepping down. McCaw, who along with Briles remains a subject of a federal lawsuit against Baylor, was sanctioned and placed on probation before resigning.
Here at Liberty, McCaw’s hire has drawn approval and scorn: He presided over both Baylor athletics’ finest and darkest days. His move to Lynchburg could be good or bad for the school, opportunity going head-to-head against optics, and like much of the campus, this class is divided.
“Forgiveness,” one student said, “is necessary.”
A few classmates agreed. Others shook their heads.
“I just think it sends a negative message,” another said.
One student said McCaw should be innocent until proved guilty. Another suggested that even here, grace and mercy have limits. Another said he trusted the judgment of Jerry Falwell Jr., the outspoken Liberty president who has shown an aptitude for aligning himself with winners, namely President-elect Donald Trump.
One young man turned to Acts of the Apostles: “Ananias answered: ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done,’ ” the student read. “. . . But the Lord said to him: ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine.’ ”
A moment passed, the class absorbing the verses’ symbolism, before another young man spoke.
“This is not okay,” he said. “I do think we’re supposed to forgive. But I don’t know if we should give him a job.”
Falwell stood at a third-floor window and overlooked his campus, four athletic facilities under construction as part of a nearly $1 billion university expansion project. This university used to be his daddy’s, but now it was his.
The scene inspired a story, though with the younger Falwell that doesn’t always take much. This one was about how, years ago, the late televangelist Jerry Falwell met with accreditors to launch a Christian school in the foothills of central Virginia. “Look,” the son said, reaching the story’s conclusion. “Liberty’s a different place.”
Falwell likes that, not just the story but the idea of it: Liberty follows no blueprint, accepts no givens, conforms to no convention. There aren’t many things Falwell is prouder of, and here he is — emboldened by Trump’s victory and Falwell’s early endorsement of the unconventional candidate — charging ahead again.
“When I find somebody I think merits my support,” Falwell said this week, “I don’t care how much heat I take. I just do it.”
About a year ago, Liberty officials noticed a scandal smoldering at Baylor, the overachieving Baptist university in Waco, Tex. Falwell and his senior staffers had admired Baylor and, in particular, McCaw, 54, for a long time. Though Liberty employed an athletic director, Jeff Barber, the staff questioned whether Barber was the man to lead the athletic department’s continued rise. Should the scandal make McCaw suddenly available, they discussed internally, the school should act quickly.
In May, a report by the law firm Pepper Hamilton concluded that Baylor’s response to allegations of sexual harassment or violence on campus failed to meet guidelines under the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX, leading to the firing of Briles and the resignation of McCaw, Starr and others. Members of Baylor’s Board of Regents told the Wall Street Journal in October that 17 women had reported incidents of sexual or domestic assault involving 19 football players — including four alleged gang rapes — since 2011.
Last month, Baylor said in a news release that McCaw and two other senior members of the athletics department were informed in 2013 of a female student-athlete’s allegations of a gang rape committed by five Bears football players, and none passed along that information to the proper authorities. On Thursday, Briles filed suit against three Baylor regents and a school vice president for libel and slander.
But with McCaw available, Liberty officials decided they needn’t waste time on appearances.
“Randy was telling me a story the other day,” Falwell said, now seated at a long conference table surrounded by four of his top lieutenants, including McCaw. “He ran into Dad somewhere and asked him about — don’t you get upset about all this bad press? What did he say?”
Randy Smith, Liberty’s chief operating officer seated at Falwell’s left, smiled. “He said there’s no such thing as bad press.”
Falwell nodded, finishing the story as he also will occasionally do.
“He said: You think anybody would pay any attention to this place if I didn’t say controversial things?”
He paused as the laughter faded. “I think it’s good to be different,” Falwell said.
He said Liberty’s uniqueness and willingness to take risks are reasons it makes almost more money than it can spend: Smith said the school pulls in about $1 billion annually, and with a $250 million surplus, the nonprofit can barely build new structures quickly enough. But as quickly as it has grown, Liberty athletics have nonetheless been left out of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the top tier for any program’s most high-profile sport. Falwell, envisioning his school as the evangelical Notre Dame, doesn’t like this.
And so when McCaw resigned from Baylor, Liberty saw a chance to bring in an administrator who could shepherd the Flames toward the big leagues.
Smith, the school’s COO, said the university retained a Boston law firm to vet McCaw. Falwell said he spoke with several Baylor regents, each of whom insisted McCaw’s role in the scandal had been overblown. Falwell now believes McCaw was “blameless,” just a scapegoat in an organizational failure.
Falwell met with McCaw off-campus Oct. 29 and later said he asked McCaw pointed questions about the scandal. Neither Falwell nor McCaw would reveal details about the conversation, but regardless, Falwell was convinced: McCaw, a talented administrator and a Christian, was Liberty’s man. Barber resigned three weeks later, 11 days before McCaw was introduced.
But given the enthusiasm and fit, was McCaw actually clean? Or was he simply clean enough?
“I would say to anybody who’s charging him,” Smith said, “who’s accusing him of being anything other than an honorable man . . .”
Falwell chimed in, speaking between breaks in Smith’s words.
“Nothing,” he said. “Show us.”
“Tell me one sanction,” Smith continued, “tell me one charge. . .”
“Show us what he did,” Falwell said.
“And they can’t,” Falwell said.
McCaw’s hire was a surprise to most everyone outside Falwell’s inner circle. Athletic department employees learned they had a new boss 15 minutes before the university issued a news release.
The statement lauded McCaw’s accomplishments at Baylor: five national championships and nearly six dozen Big 12 titles among them. There was no mention of the scandal, only a reference to those in Waco who “wished he had opted to stay.”
The announcement was roundly criticized, including by some within the Liberty community.
“Ian McCaw might really be the right guy and might really be blameless in Waco,” said Mark DeMoss, a former Liberty athlete and board member who resigned his seat last spring after Falwell’s endorsement of Trump.
“And I hope he is. But I don’t know how we can know that this fast. Even if we did know it, we didn’t do a very good job of selling it.”
Debates broke out on campus, at least among those who followed sports, and if this was the latest effort to grow the school’s brand, some questioned whether it was growing it positively.
“People are going to say: ‘Oh, you went to Liberty,’ ” said Joel Schmieg, a student who has criticized many of Falwell’s decisions recently. “And that’s going to have a very negative connotation.”
Amid all this, Falwell dug his heels in. The criticism was not, he believed, a side effect of a hurried search process or the blowback Liberty officials had predicted. Rather, Falwell said, it was the “usual suspects who attack Liberty no matter what” and a byproduct of his support for Trump.
“We know we’re a target for certain people,” he said, “and they’re going to try to make something out of nothing.”
McCaw said he had been advised by attorneys to avoid answering questions about what transpired at Baylor, offering little more than that he is “uniquely sensitized” to keep sexual violence out of his athletic department.
“I’m not sure why God led me here,” he said. “Maybe it’s to prevent something from happening in the future.”
McCaw walked in during the second half of Tuesday night’s men’s basketball game, standing for a long time under the inflatable tunnel.
Then an athletics associate greeted him, and they walked together as McCaw introduced himself to fans at Vines Center. If Falwell prefers to go head-to-head against public opinion, McCaw would rather tread carefully.
“I look forward to forging relationships and earning people’s trust,” he said.
He approached a man and his son in courtside seats, and the men spoke for a minute or two. The man, who would identify himself only as Andy, said after meeting McCaw that he was hopeful, not — as he had been when Liberty announced the hire — suspicious.
McCaw, a slender man, glided around the perimeter and stopped often, speaking to fans young and old, women and men. Sandra Day, a 72-year-old who said she soon would begin taking classes at Liberty, said the campus felt no less safe after McCaw was hired. As Furman defeated Liberty, 61-58 , Day said she hoped McCaw could bring glory back to Lynchburg, and no matter what happened at Baylor, she had confidence in Falwell’s judgment.
McCaw climbed the stairs, snaking through the rows and stopping to chat before moving on.
Ron Moyer has been going to games for years, he said, and on this night he sat beside his brother. McCaw approached and extended his hand.
A moment later, Moyer said it didn’t matter what McCaw did or didn’t do at Baylor. He was at Liberty now.
“These people are forgiving,” Moyer, 59, said. “If he did something wrong, he’s probably going to be forgiven.”
McCaw kept moving. Moyer said the new athletic director, no matter his background, was just what the school needed.
“Sometimes,” Moyer said, “you’ve just got to take a gamble.”