Nobody questions the role that football has at Notre Dame. Football was what allowed the South Bend, Indiana school to grow from a growing Catholic university to a national, iconic institution.
But what allowed Notre Dame to become Notre Dame was a path that isn't available to religious institutions today.
Much virtual ink has been spilled about the effects of collegiate realignment, how some conferences have been torn asunder, how some schools are stuck in places that don't make sense, how other conferences are receiving piles of money that would make Scrooge McDuck envious.
But one of the biggest losers in this conference-driven realignment is the idea of independent football-playing schools, either loosely-tied or untied from the conference structure that drives the bus today.
When realignment articles come out today, floating schools like BYU or Liberty as potential conference-mates for schools like Texas or Old Dominion, they ignore the issue that they dare not speak publicly - mixing religion and football is not something they're comfortable doing.
Any trip to Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia during football stadium makes that obvious.
Williams Stadium has a capacity of 19,200 fans, making it unusual enough for FCS fans attending games at, say, Georgetown's Multi-Sport Field with a published capacity of 2,500.
But it's separation from the rest of the stadiums of FCS doesn't end at numbers.
I had the honor of heading to Lynchburg to cover a game from from the press box, which was a facility that puts many FBS outfits to shame, let alone FCS. The amount of space devoted to coverage was enormous, and right outside the press are was a view of a large concourse for VIPs, where employees offered hors d'oeuvres to the guests, as well as meat carving stations to the hundreds of guests below.
Williams stadium has lots to make it a football destination - amenities, fireworks, a flaming scoreboard. A packed house - even if attendance at the football games are compulsory - is almost guaranteed. Required attendance nonwithstanding, it makes for a big-time atmosphere that Western Michigan can only dream about.
Liberty University is a religious institution, founded by the Southern Baptist evangelist preacher Jerry Falwell. Its chancellor is now Jerry Falwell, Jr. and is an attractive place for people to go who wish a religious, conservative education.
Almost from its inception Jerry Falwell's intent was to build an FBS football program.
“Football’s role in making Liberty a national institution was my father’s vision from the very beginning,” Falwell said one day last month from his office perch, waving his hand across a Liberty panorama that now routinely features construction cranes and cement-mixing trucks. “It might have seemed far-fetched then, but not now. We’re as ready as anyone can be.”
|Skiing 365 days a year in Lynchburg|
In 2012, the New York Times reported Liberty's online university enrollment as 82,000 people, which helped spur on some incredible spending on athletics.
For example, visible from Liberty's press box during their football games is the Snowflex Centre [sic], their all-weather skiing area that allows students to enjoy the thrill of skiing without snow. (It's one of only a handful of such facilities in the world.)
Bottom line, in pretty much every way imaginable, Liberty should not be an FCS school.
They should be an FBS school.
They have the money to be an FBS school, they have as their mission to be an FBS school, and when they had the opportunity to offer full cost of attendance to their student-athletes across all sports (not just football), they barely hesitated - they immediately offered it.
Adding full-cost-of-attendance to their football team further separated them from the rest of the teams they compete against in FCS. As of today, they are the only school in FCS offering full cost of attendance to their football athletes.
So what's stopping them from moving to FBS, where the majority of the schools in that subdivision offer FCOA?
The answer has two parts: the NCAA, and the conferences that currently comprise FBS.
The NCAA is to blame because they came up with the rules to define what an FBS school is.
Basically, if you are a fully-accredited Division I school, with or without football, there is one path to conference membership: be invited by a conference that already sponsors FBS football.
As crazy as it sounds, a school cannot just will themselves to be an FBS school, no matter how much money they have to spend, no matter how little they resemble their FCS competition, and despite the fact that, financially, they could expand to the 85 scholarship limit for FBS football tomorrow.
The only way Liberty can become an FBS member is if an existing FBS conference wants them to join.
This is not how Notre Dame or BYU became FBS.
Notre Dame built themselves up in an era before the forward pass was invented. In those days, in the Golden Era of college football in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the way to build your football program was to schedule the biggest teams in your region, beat them, and to build your program. After they were able to beat Michigan and be routinely be in the conversation for the best team in the midwest, they started to beat teams nationally, generating a national following, while remaining independent of any conference. By the time big money appeared in the form of TV contracts, they were so big they cut their own deal with NBC, securing the future of Notre Dame football for multiple generations.
|"We made it to FBS!"|
In a way, it was sheer luck that BYU ended up in a conference that sponsored FBS football once Division I split into I-A and I-AA in 1978. The WAC would eventually dissolve as a football conference after a tumultuous life in FBS, but by then BYU had moved to the Mountain West to allow them to continue their FBS ambitions.
Liberty has everything in common with Notre Dame and BYU.
They are all national institutions that promote a religious-based education and have a national reach. They have individual TV deals with national outlets (BYU shows its games on BYU TV, Notre Dame carries its games on NBC and other national channels, and Liberty has its own broadcast outlet, the Liberty Flames Sports Network).
They have national fan bases that drive revenue back to the school. Heck, they also offer full cost of attendance for their athletes, something that BYU just recently announced with a splashy reminder that their payments were going to be greater than those of Pac 12 schools.
BYU and Notre Dame are FBS schools because, effectively, they were grandfathered into the system when college athletics separating into I-A and I-AA in 1978.
But Liberty can't get there today because they need an invite from one of the existing FBS conferences.
As a result, they sit in their conference, the Big South, with one eye at the door - not looking like the other schools in their conference, with completely different hopes and dreams than fellow conference members UNC-Asheville, Coastal Carolina, or Charleston Southern.
In fact, you have to believe if the next Notre Dame existed in the NCAA structure that exists today, it's very likely they'd encounter all of the same issues that Liberty has faced, and would be sitting where Liberty is today: the biggest fish in their FCS conference.
That's not right.
Why does Liberty have such trouble finding an FBS conference?
The answer has two parts: one institutional, and the other economic.
Liberty, like Notre Dame and BYU, have different missions and aspirations than the other schools, and especially the other conferences, that might be asked to invite them.
The MAC is an FBS conference that is largely regional in nature. Its members are fine schools, like Ball State and Eastern Michigan. But their institutional aspirations are to be, for the most part, the second- or third-most well-known school within their state. They're not shooting to attract the majority of their fans from across the country.
Ironically, the MAC might not be interested because Liberty is too successful. They might see Liberty's aspirations, as a national religious university, as incompatible with their aspirations as schools. They might see Liberty as casting the MAC to the side, as soon as they are considered an FBS school.
This is where the economic part comes in.
Liberty is big enough, and rich enough, to not really need a conference.
|Liberty need not apply|
Liberty wouldn't refuse the money, but they could certainly survive without it.
And Liberty isn't hurting for a TV contract, either. It has its own TV station, just like BYU and Notre Dame have. They don't need to collectively bargain for their TV rights on the open market - they OWN their own TV market. They don't need to pay anyone to get on TV. They're on TV already.
The MAC knows all about this type of situation already. It's what happened when they agreed to accept UMass as a football-only school. After UMass got what it wanted - FBS status - the MAC asked the Minutemen to either become all-sports members, or get out. (UMass, to their detriment, got out.)
This is why Liberty is stuck.
The lower-tier conferences, such as the Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt, and AAC don't want Liberty because they're afraid the first thing they'll do, once they're FBS, is to jump ship.
And the "Power Five" conferences, such as the ACC, SEC and others, don't need Liberty either. Being essentially in control of all the college football playoff money and access, they have become an oligarchy of schools who aren't actively looking to add more members because adding more members would mean sharing more money.
Currently, religion isn't mixing with FBS football precisely because there is no conference that comprises these types of institutions. There isn't a conference that represents the need of independent, nationally-focused football teams that want to play at the FBS level.
And there should be.
Suppose there were a football-only FBS conference of the following teams:
All of them are either private religious institutions or public military institutions.
All look outwards in the same direction: they all are football-focused schools that have football as a part of their national mission.
In sports other than football, they remain in their existing conferences - TCU in the Big XII, BYU in the Great West, Notre Dame in the ACC, Army/Navy in the Patriot League, perhaps even Liberty in the Big South.
With a football-only construct like this, a commissioner could accurately lobby for the interests off all these institutions - which, largely, are the same. All are national schools that seek to recruit nationally.
Rather than collectively bargaining with a bunch of second-best or third-best schools in their state, their commissioner would collectively bargain in the FBS world with like-minded institutions with similar goals.
It might even make them more attractive to be considered in the College Football Playoff structure. While Notre Dame and TCU are already technically included already, wouldn't such a conference be awfully hard to deny a spot at the table if they went 11-0?
TCU, coming at the college football playoff with a shot at inclusion as a part of the Big XII wasn't exactly helped by their conference schedule and out-of-conference slate. But a schedule with wins over Notre Dame and BYU might give them more of a benefit to the committee than wins over institutions that look nothing like them, like Iowa State.
Conference games with all these schools, too, preserve existing rivalries like Notre Dame/Navy, Army/Navy, and others. Additionally, conference games cover almost the entire nation - something that a conference with national aspirations should find beneficial.
Sacrifices would need to be made on all sides. An independent schedule, as pursued by Notre Dame and Army, would now require conference scheduling, though it's worth noting that many of these schools already play each other often as independents. Maybe it's unlikely to ever happen.
But at a high level, it would allow religion and football to mix together better - as it should.
Because the stratified way things are now, Liberty will never be able to emerge from FCS. And it should.