GIVE HIM LIBERTY : Rutigliano Welcomes the Chance to Coach Fundamentalist Football, Which Preaches More Than Just Blocking and Tackling

Times Staff Writer

In all the lore of Notre Dame, nobody remembers a flood sweeping through the football team's practice facility and carrying all the equipment downstream, thus ending the season three games early.

At Brigham Young they do not tell stories of the players sleeping in tents.

Nor can the Oral Roberts basketball program wax nostalgic about a training table that boasted of powdered eggs and tuna fish sandwiches, apparently in its entirety.

So you have to hand it to Liberty University, evangelist Jerry Falwell's "spiritual boot camp."

Founded in 1971 with just 250 students, just a Bible school really, it has come to acquire low-slung buildings on campus acreage and university accreditation, a broad athletic program and, most important, a colorful past. It hasn't been around long enough to have alumni to speak of or to become much of a rival to other Christian institutions, yet there are already some Division I-A stories, such as the time the players painted a dormitory hot pink.

Of course the real reason you have to hand it to Liberty University, by now a campus of some 5,000 students, is that it has a future as well. Two months ago, it capped a successful foray into National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division I-AA football by firing its coach after an 8-3 season and hiring Sam Rutigliano, one-time coach of the year in the National Football League.

Sam Rutigliano!

Falwell, who has often joked he would like to beat Notre Dame, is no longer getting a laugh out of his ambitions.

"He made that claim when he first started," said Scott Tolley, sportswriter for the Lynchburg News and Daily Advance who has been watching this story develop over the years. "And we thought he was joking at the time." No joke.

Four years ago, a wealthy donor built Hancock Athletic Center, with major league offices and a vast weight-training facility.

This winter, another donor provided funds to scrape some red dirt off Candler's Mountain--they've chosen high ground this time--and prepare it for a 12,000-seat football stadium, which can be expanded to 35,000.

Early last week, they signed a hotshot high school quarterback from San Diego. Days later they filled an open date with Eastern Michigan, a Division I-A school, their first.

And so the Baptists throw down the gauntlet. Falwell's Fundamentalists are clearly up to something. It's not exactly "My religion can beat yours," but rather a new slant on missionary zeal. The Catholics and Mormons were able to witness at bowl games after last season, so how were the Baptists represented? It may or may not work but admit it, you'd never heard of Liberty University before this story, had you?

This is all about exposure and they make no bones about it.

Rutigliano, for example, is an inspired choice for this program even though they didn't exactly need a new coach. Morgan Hout got the Flames through an 8-3 season in an upgraded Division I-AA schedule, but he couldn't get them what Falwell really needed.

And what would that be, anyway? It would be attention.

Said Rutigliano, settling back in a vast office, looking at a visitor who had just traveled 2,500 miles, "You came, didn't you?"

Falwell is of the firm belief, one of several evidently, that sports is a great way to spread the gospel. The example of Notre Dame looms large in his mind, to judge by the repeated references to it. He is said to be a considerable sports freak, attending all home games at the very least, but his vision apparently extends far beyond his own fandom.

"He wants to go big time," said Rutigliano, 56, former coach of the Cleveland Browns. "Because, bottom line, he wants to spread the message of what Liberty University is all about. Sports is a powerful force. He wants to spread the word, save some souls."

If this happens, it will be because of Rutigliano and against some long odds. Although Falwell's commitment is very real--the recruiting budget was beefed up from $17,000 to $100,000--it will be a long time before Liberty University can compete with Notre Dame. Not all the recruiting money in the world can help land some blue chippers.

"It's not for everybody," Rutigliano said. "A kid asks me, 'Coach, do I have to give up beer?' "

That's the least of it. If he comes to Liberty University, according to a handbook called the Liberty Way, he'll give up going to movies, slouching in blue jeans and any night on the town later than 11:30.

But Rutigliano is bound to be a powerful force, whether recruiting or on the sidelines. Whatever you say of his experience, which was a 47-52 record in 6 1/2 years with the Browns, it was NFL experience.

"The kids think I'm special, whether I am or not," he said, shrugging. "They tend to listen."

Not too many schools, on any level, can present a coach with NFL experience. Why, one of the few we can think of is Lou Holtz . . . at Notre Dame.

It makes sense that Rutigliano can help Liberty University in upgrading its program. But what can Liberty University do for Sam Rutigliano?

The marriage is not as odd as it might first appear. Rutigliano, who admits he may be better known for his drug-rehabilitation program with the Browns than for his record, probably couldn't coach anywhere but Liberty University. It turns out this is the job he was reborn for.

After he was let go by the Browns in 1984, he embarked on what he calls his own "mini-ministry."

Deeply religious ever since his 4-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident in 1962, Rutigliano was using his time to do some broadcasting for NBC and ESPN, speak on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes among other causes, and to teach school in the inner city of Cleveland. The TV work was terrific--"They pay you and you don't have to win"--and the other work was satisfying.

Rutigliano was comfortable enough that he could turn down four offers from Division I schools.

Of coaching again, he said: "I just felt there wasn't a reason to do it. Teaching, speaking, doing things I was never able to do as a coach. I went to Guadalajara with a pro athletes' outreach group. I took a Division III team to New Zealand. I mean, I was doing things I had never done, and I was doing them with my wife. I had a normal life. And I was able to see that the leaves actually do turn colors in the fall. I was not quick to give that up."

But then Rutigliano was invited to speak at chapel by Falwell. It was just another stop on a 50-60 speech-a-year schedule.

"It was a very moving experience, seeing 5,000-6,000 kids getting high, but for all the right reasons," he said.

Still, it took Falwell one more meeting before he could persuade Rutigliano to help elevate his program to the big time.

Rutigliano had reservations--still has some--about the kind of job this would turn out to be. There was an obvious appeal to him.

"This was an alternative," he said, referring to the spreading use of drugs around him.

Although his "Inner Circle" program with the Browns was innovative and successful, he was becoming overwhelmed by the problem.

"You've gotta realize, we're involved in a way in this country and we're losing. We consume $6.8 million an hour on alcohol. If you lump IBM, Chrysler and Coca-Cola together, they would not exceed the cocaine industry in this country. You come (to Liberty), you can't smoke, drink, everybody's subject to random testing. It's not a legalistic thing, but. . . . "

It certainly was an alternative. Rutigliano's professional interest was also piqued by Falwell's strange ambition to make Liberty University to the Baptists "what Notre Dame is to Catholics and BYU is to the Mormons." And when Falwell said they were building a stadium this year, "Well, that was the kicker."

Of course, Rutigliano was not so unrealistic as to think that everybody was dying to attend a university where, until recently, you couldn't date without a chaperon before your junior year. Not to pick on the Sooners, but you doubt many of the more famous Oklahoma football players would find this their kind of comfort zone. To tell the truth, not many people would survive here.

NCAA drug testing was thought to be extreme, but here it applies to every student, not just athletes in bowl games. The kids who come here are probably not drawn to vices to begin with. A curriculum that includes mandatory Bible survey courses and weekly chapel appeals to a certain kind of student. But beyond that they are not allowed much opportunity to explore culture's underside.

A young woman working in one of the athletic offices explained the various curfews. Some nights it's 10:30, others 11:30.

"Of course, you have to understand something about Lynchburg," she said. "There's nothing to do at 11:30. At 11:30, they're begging to get back into the dorms."

Absolutely nothing to do?

She thinks. "We can hold hands."

Though emphasized, athletics are not so set apart here that the jocks escape this atmosphere. Tolley of the local paper said that when a couple of football players were kicked out for marijuana use, the news was sufficient that Penthouse magazine came sniffing around. But that's about as sensational as things get here. The athletes are drawn from the same religious pool as the rest of the campus and they live and die by the same rules.

Rutigliano knows there is no sense misrepresenting conditions to the prospects. "They'll have a bad experience, they'll leave," he said. So he spells it out.

Down the hall, a soccer coach is making a routine phone check with a recruit. His end of the conversation goes like this: "Son, what I'm saying is, Jesus Christ died for your sins."

This is probably no less fervid than, say, Barry Switzer's pitch, just a different slant is all.

Whether the soccer player was persuaded by anything from the New Testament is not known. However, there are people for whom this is a refreshing alternative.

"This is a situation where you're recruiting a limited student, like Air Force, Navy, Harvard," Rutigliano explained. "Except, more so here. We've got to recruit across the U.S. because we've got to see a lot of kids."

He said he has met with laughs from time to time.

"But other kids want an alternative, don't want to go somewhere where they're smoking pot. They want a Christian school and there's more of them than we give them credit for. To build this program, we need about three-four blue chippers (a year). This year, we hit about two-three."

Sometimes, he admitted, it's not the blue chipper who is sold on the program, but the parents, who regard this as a safe harbor in a murky sea.

"When they visit with their parents, we got a chance," he said. "Parents want to send their kids to college, but somewhere where they'll get a chance of getting them back. They can come here, marry the girl of their dreams."

That reminds Rutigliano.

"You know, there's a lot of rich guys that have beautiful daughters and want to send them here to meet the right guy," he said.

As recruiting pitches go, well, we're getting warm. Later on the kids can deal with the hand-holding.

For Rutigliano, who was buffeted by real life in the NFL--players use vast amounts of cocaine, owners fire you for starting badly--this is a refuge as well. He admitted it's kind of strict.

"The kids need a chance to ventilate," he conceded. But he'll swallow that gladly.

"This is an alternative," he said. "We've gone way too far. The ketchup is out of the bottle and we can't put it back in."

Here in Lynchburg, the cap is still screwed on tight.

On the other hand, Falwell may be opening up Pandora's box even as he keeps the ketchup bottle sealed. Big-time sports is not necessarily incompatible with a virtuous life. But nothing attracts temptation like a football program with momentum. Already, Tolley said, there are rumors of steroid use in the athletic program.

And pressure? Falwell is regarded as a good sport, a frisky guy who mingles easily with his kids. The young woman we met said he's famous for sneaking up behind you and scaring you.

"And if you cross in front of his car on campus, he'll honk his horn just to make you jump."

His concern does not appear to be the evangelist's game face either. This same young woman said that she saw him in the stands at a recent high school basketball game but kept her distance.

"He doesn't approve of my boyfriends," she said.

At the same time, he appears willing to operate in the cutthroat world of a burgeoning sports power.

When Rutigliano told Falwell he wasn't interested in the job until there was an actual vacancy, Falwell didn't hesitate to create one. Morgan Hout learned of his firing while on a recruiting trip. His secretary gave him the news. Falwell shrugged off the resulting controversy and said he just didn't think Hout was the man to take the program to the next level.

So the pressure builds.

Rutigliano is not unaware of a master plan. Liberty University means to establish an identity in the eastern corridor.

"Play a William & Mary, a Virginia, a James Madison, make your next step, a few TV games, build your stadium to 36,000 and move up to Northwestern, Stanford," Rutigliano said.

And Notre Dame?

"That's the bull's-eye," Rutigliano said.

And he fully understands his charge.

"We have to win. We have to get people's attention."

In that respect, of course, Liberty University is just like any other school, Rutigliano's job just like any other. It's just that, for all their ambition, their motives seem decidedly different from the other football programs on the make.

"Imagine," said Rutigliano, obviously affected by Falwell's vision, "us playing in a bowl game someday, winning souls."

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