Although BYU and Liberty University are separated geographically by nearly 2,000 miles, the two school share some common ties:
Both are private religious institutions as Liberty is an evangelical Christian school, while BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Both have strict honor codes establishing rules for student conduct.
And — as of the last couple of years — both have FBS college football teams that have chosen to play as independent programs instead of being part of a conference.
“We certainly look at BYU as a model, something we aspire towards,” Liberty director of athletics Ian McCaw said in a phone interview earlier in the week. “BYU, like us, is a faith-based university that has achieved a high level of success, won a national championship and play a very attractive national schedule.”
The Flames are currently missing the tradition of big-time football success that the Cougars have, since the school is only in its second year of competing at the FBS level.
McCaw said the independence route turned out to be the one that made the most sense when Liberty was making the transition.
“President Jerry Falwell Jr. pursued FBS opportunities through a variety of conferences but was unable to secure an invitation,” McCaw said. “When I arrived in the fall of 2016, we decided to pursue a waiver of the NCAA’s conference invitation requirement, which only allows a team to move from FCS football to FBS football with a conference invitation. We were able to receive a waiver in February of 2017, which allowed us to move up to the FBS level as an independent, similar to BYU and Notre Dame and Army. That was obviously very exciting for us.”
The waiver meant the Flames went through a very rapid transition, playing as a provisional FBS team in 2018 and then becoming a fully-certified FBS team in 2019.
As most BYU fans can understand, the most daunting obstacle facing Liberty was finding opponents.
“That’s gone really well and we now have schedules completed through 2023,” McCaw said. “We’ve definitely tried to adopt some of the scheduling practices that BYU has incorporated. The schedule was unbalanced for the first couple of years because scheduling is done four or five years in advance. As we’ve been able to move out a little further, we’ve been able to be a little more strategic. We’ve been very fortunate that teams have worked with us, particularly teams from the ACC.”
The Flames also needed broadcasting support and found it in the same way BYU did.
“We were able to get a television agreement with ESPN, similar to what BYU has,” McCaw said “We also have a bowl agreement with ESPN like BYU does where ESPN will be our bowl partner and will place us into one of the games they own and operate.”
Not surprisingly, McCaw said the BYU model was a valuable reference guide for Liberty as it elected to become an independent program and so being able to schedule a home-and-home football series was a goal.
The Cougars host the Flames on Saturday afternoon, then BYU will head to Lynchburg, Virginia, for a game in 2022.
“I’m eager to look around campus on Saturday because I understand that BYU has some excellent facilities,” McCaw said. “We’re certainly going this year with the intention of listening and learning and seeing if there are some things we can apply back at Liberty.”
Many observers of the Cougar football program have questioned whether independence can be viable as a long-term situation for BYU but McCaw believes it could be the right position for Liberty for many years to come.
“We believe that playing as an FBS independent is sustainable for the long-term for Liberty,” McCaw said. “We are very happy doing it for the foreseeable future. Certainly if there was an opportunity at some point to be invited to an FBS conference, we would have to evaluate it. But we like this model and it is working well for us at the moment.”
When you factor in the building of an indoor practice facility and a stadium expansion as well as all of the other challenges, it’s definitely been a whirlwind time for the entire Liberty athletic department.
“I feel like we have moved a football program a decade ahead in two-and-a-half years,” McCaw said. “It really has accelerated very quickly but it is what was necessary. If you step into the FBS world, you can’t do it with one foot. You have to jump in with both feet and we’ve done that. It’s an exciting time here.”