The NCAA approved Liberty’s two-year Football Bowl Subdivision reclassification process this week, making the Flames the 130th full-fledged member of college football’s top tier. The process was finalized when the NCAA Division I Strategic Vision and Planning Committee approved Liberty’s annual report and updated strategic plan.
“They approved our entire strategic plan, which again encompassed everything from financial commitments, scholarships, facilities [and] commitment to a broad based program,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said in a phone interview. “We’re grateful to move forward in this process. We’re still building this football program, and today’s announcement is another important milestone.”
Liberty had to meet several requirements for approval to play as an independent, unaffiliated with any conference, at the FBS level, which included financial commitment, scholarship increase, facility improvements and minimum attendance.
The football program is offering the maximum 85 scholarships allowed at the FBS level, an increase of 22 scholarships from when it was a member of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision. The Flames had 85 scholarship players on the roster last season.
The university completed a near $50-million expansion of Williams Stadium last season, highlighted by the addition of an upper deck to the east grandstands that expanded seating to 25,000, a colonnade on the south end of the stadium and a 3,000-square-foot video board in the north end zone.
A $29 million indoor practice facility is adjacent to Williams Stadium, and the Football Operations Center (now called the Liberty Football Center) is undergoing a massive expansion. Costs for that project have not been disclosed.
“What’s helped us immeasurably is putting in place the indoor football practice facility, the renovations to Williams Stadium, and now the new Liberty Football Center will give us really Power 5-caliber facilities,” McCaw said. “We’re fortunate. Our football program’s in the midst of a meteoric rise that began in February of 2017 when the NCAA approved our move to FBS.”
Liberty’s average attendance the past two seasons of 16,426 exceeded the minimum requirement of 15,000.
“The transition’s gone really better than we could have imagined, and we’re certainly feeling very blessed,” McCaw said. “The committee was impressed with our resources, our commitment and our infrastructure. I’m really thrilled for President [Jerry] Falwell; his vision, his hard work over many years is being rewarded.”
The LFC is not expected to be completed until January, but McCaw said the locker rooms should be open for the Aug. 31 season opener against Syracuse, the first Power 5 conference opponent to play at Williams Stadium.
“We feel really good about the locker room being ready prior to the first game,” McCaw said. “The rest of the building will be coming along a lot later. We plan on using the temporary weight room in the indoor football practice facility throughout the season.”
In addition to reclassifying to the FBS level, the program announced a new initiative Wednesday called Freeze’s 40. The Flames Club and the football staff are aiming to attract 40 supporters to donate $5,000 each, with the $200,000 planned to go into a fund that already includes anonymous donations totaling $200,000.
“Freeze’s 40 is an opportunity for us to continue to grow the fanbase and those that want to invest in this program,” McCaw said. “We already have a number of people who have made commitments to be a part of it, and hopefully we can get to 40 before too long.”
Members of the group will receive behind-the-scenes access to the program and unique game experiences. The funds will be managed by the football staff to specifically support the program.
“It’s really like a special purpose fund,” McCaw said, adding the funds must be used within university policy. “Obviously the program’s well-funded for the basics like recruiting travel, all the essentials. This is more for special purposes that are enhancements to the program above and beyond what the university provides.”
In recruiting news, Liberty picked up its 13th verbal commitment for the Class of 2020 late Wednesday night when Enoch Howard announced his commitment on social media.
Howard, a rising senior at Hephzibah High School in Georgia, plays both safety positions. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Howard had 56 tackles, three interceptions and eight passes defended as a junior.
Howard made an unofficial visit to Liberty on Wednesday and also had offers from Troy and The Citadel. He is the eighth defensive player in the recruiting class.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.