Liberty to Atlantic Sun Conference

Liberty University athletic director Ian McCaw speaks at a press conference where it was announced that Liberty University would be moving to the Atlantic Sun Conference for all non-football sports on Thursday May 17, 2018, in Lynchburg, Va. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw’s summer hasn’t been as hectic as it was last year when the Flames changed affiliations from the Big South Conference to the ASUN Conference. McCaw, in conjunction with the other ADs from the new conference, had to complete schedules for 17 sports in a matter of weeks. This summer, McCaw has been able to enjoy the immense success of the Flames’ inaugural season in the ASUN, while looking ahead to several projects in the works.

McCaw sat down with The News & Advance for an annual Q&A that touched on several topics, including fundraising, conference tournaments coming to Liberty, and the overall program entering the “Golden Age” of Liberty athletics.

N&A: As a first-year member in the ASUN, did you expect the athletic department to enjoy the amount of success across the board with multiple championships and NCAA Tournament appearances?

IM: “I think by any measure it was our most successful year, and certainly I think our coaches, our staff and student-athletes are performing at a high level. As we transitioned to the FBS and the ASUN, certainly we were anxious to see how it would turn out. But I think both transitions were successful. We were very competitive and obviously won nine championships across the board and had a really competitive year. Certainly for us it begins with President Falwell and his leadership and support and providing us with top-notch facilities and the resources to be competitive. From there, the coaches and the student-athletes have really performed well.”

N&A: Is it much more relaxed this summer with the schedules being completed well in advance?

IM: “Administratively, this will be a much more comfortable year in the ASUN. Last year was a rush to get everything ready in terms of scheduling and operations. This year, we’ve been through a cycle, so we know what to expect, we know how to get to the various locations, know where to stay, and the logistics will be a lot easier this year. Certainly we were very impressed with the quality of competition, great institutions, so we really enjoyed the first year, and excited about the future.

“It’s also interesting to note the ASUN felt like this was the best year in the history of their conference with postseason success and so forth, and Liberty was a big part of that.”

N&A: Do you feel any sports in particular took steps forward?

IM: “We were most encouraged about the success across the board comprehensively. It wasn’t just a matter of one or two or three teams being successful, it was really across the board. If you look at it, we had in addition to nine teams winning championships, we had a lot of teams finishing runner-up and highly competitive. That’s what we want to be as an athletic program. We want every one of our programs to be consistently competing for championships, and we took a large step in that direction this year.”

N&A: That success across the board, it is good for the entire department, especially with football aspirations of eventually landing in a conference?

IM: “I think the success of the [football] program feeds the other programs. It’s a sense of momentum, and when you see football doing well, that helps basketball, which helps softball, which helps baseball, and again it’s just a great feeling of momentum around here right now where all of our programs are aspiring to compete for championships and have success in the postseason.”

N&A: Men’s basketball had the most visible program outside of football with the ASUN tournament title and NCAA Tournament victory. How much higher is the ceiling for that program?

IM: “I’m certainly excited about this year. We return a great nucleus and I think are poised to have another opportunity to get to postseason. I think coach McKay has done a great job, and I really say that about all our coaches. I’m very pleased with the quality of coaches we have across the board in both the head coaching positions, as well as the assistant coaches. We really a high quality staff and we’ve given them the resources to be successful. I expect Liberty athletics is going to thrive. I really feel that we’re just entering the ‘Golden Age’ of Liberty athletics. I think 25 years from now, people will look back at this time right now as being a point where we really turned the corner and did some special things.”

N&A: Didn’t you coin that phrase, ‘Golden Age,’ during your time at Baylor?

IM: “It reminds me a little bit kind of around 2010, 2011 when we were starting to turn the corner at Baylor. There’s a similar feeling and hopefully we will have a similar trajectory of success.”

N&A: What makes you feel we are nearing the ‘Golden Age’ of Liberty athletics?

IM: “I think our program, if you just look again at the progress that’s been made, I’ve kind of likened us to the financial markets. We’re setting all time records in the Dow, S&P and NASDAQ. If you look at our program, whether it’s competitive success, the facilities, record season ticket sales, record fundraising, record academic performance, we’re at an all-time high, and we’re just going to continue to move forward from here. I’m very bullish on Liberty athletics and I think we’ve got a really bright future.”

N&A: When you look at the men’s basketball program, how much did the national exposure of the NCAA Tournament run allow it to become a more visible program on campus?

IM: “I think a lot of programs have gone from maybe where they were locally or regionally recognized to a point where now they are recognized on a national scale, so that’s really exciting for us. As far as men’s basketball goes, coach McKay’s done an amazing job and I think that program has extraordinary potential. Certainly last year getting to the second round of the NCAA Tournament was a great accomplishment and we’ll have high expectations again this year.”

N&A: Baseball had the run to win the ASUN tournament and make the NCAA Tournament. You said last year you were encouraged by the direction the program was headed under Scott Jackson. Do you feel that the necessary steps were taken to make sure this program can sustain a high level of success?

IM: “Coach Jackson’s built a great nucleus, great culture within his program and they recruit at a very high level. One of the things that they do an excellent job of is the development of the talent. I think that the trajectory of the baseball program is very positive and the future very bright.”

N&A: Another sport that has enjoyed success recently, softball, had another 40-win season, but some said the program underachieved by not making the NCAA Tournament. Is that a sign of how much that program has grown in the past three years?

IM: “I think certainly coming off 2018, which was the most successful softball season in history, there were really high expectations this year, and they certainly had a very good season. They won the regular season championship and unfortunately didn’t end the way we hoped, but again that’s another program that is on an upward trajectory and we’re really excited about what Dot and the future holds for Liberty softball.”

N&A: I had a chance to see the swimming & diving program in person during the football trip to New Mexico State. That team won the CCSA title and enjoyed success with a first-year diving program. Is that another program that has the pieces in place for long-term growth?

IM: “Jake [Shellenberger] does a terrific job. Coupled with the facilities improvement, along with the quality of student-athletes he’s attracting, all of our coaches are really recruiting at a very high level right now, and that certainly bodes well for all of our sports in the future.”

N&A: Are there any conference tournaments being hosted at Liberty in the coming seasons?

IM: “In 2020, softball, tennis (both men’s and women’s) and indoor track. Indoor track is a four-year deal. In 2021, baseball and indoor track.”

N&A: Swimming hosted CCSA. Is that in the works?

IM: “The next two years are at the University of Tennessee. We’ll certainly bid following that. I think we’ll definitely be in the hosting rotation for CCSA.”

N&A: How is the progress going to potentially add women’s sports with the additional 22 scholarships needed to play at the FBS level?

IM: “It’s really gone well. We have a timeline consultant, Helen Grant, that comes in every two years to review our program. We’re doing very well with respect to gender equity, and really with our roster management program, that’s really allowed us to come to compliance just by managing the size of various rosters. Some of the women’s rosters have expanded — swimming’s increased, lacrosse has increased, track has increased — so that has really provided the participation opportunities on the women’s side.”

N&A: Is roster expansion more beneficial than adding teams?

IM: “That’s what we’ve done right now. Certainly there’s been the desire on the part of some of those programs to expand the roster from a competitive standpoint, so it’s put us in a very good situation again. Football’s numbers, we’ve gone from a squad of 110 to 115, so it’s only actually increased the numbers of participants in football by five.”

N&A: From a fundraising perspective, the Flames Club has already surpassed the $1 million mark for the year. Is there a need to set goals to ensure donations continue to come in?

IM: “What’s really important for us is to build our fan base. I’ve talked to our staff about land and expand, and really we need to grow our numbers and once we get people involved, get them involved in more than one thing. If someone comes on and initially they a football season ticket, then we want them to buy a basketball season ticket and join the Flames Club. What’s been really encouraging as we sit here right now, I got a report [Monday] that we’re up 48 percent in season ticket sales year over year. It’s great to see that new people are getting involved in the program, and want as many people involved in Liberty athletics as we can get, and then once we get them involved, we want them to participate in as many programs as they will. We’re very excited about the support from the fan base. As well, the student support has been phenomenal. We think we’ll have a record student crowd for the Syracuse game and hopefully fill up Williams Stadium for what will be a really historic event for us.

“A couple of big things we’ve done in the last couple of years is we have an outbound ticket sales team, so we have three full-time staff members who are making outbound calls to get people to buy season tickets. Once we do that, we try to encourage them to join the Flames Club and again we’ve had great response with that. We just launched our multimedia marketing campaign two weeks ago. We’re investing heavily in terms of branding and trying to get the message out. The early returns have been extremely positive and again every indicator in our department — competitive, financial, academic — they’re all pointing in the right direction for us, and that’s encouraging to see.”

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550. Follow him on Twitter: @DamienSordelett

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