Rutigliano Tries to Lift Liberty to Big Time
Nancy would be in her early 30s, Sam Rutigliano often reminds himself. He wonders how his daughter would look, the sort of man she might have married, and other joys cut short by the car accident 27 years ago that took her life -- and which he caused by falling asleep at the wheel.
He and wife Barbara, with Nancy in the backseat, had left a family visit in Montreal about midnight for the summer camp where they were counselors. His last recollection of the tragedy was, shortly after daylight, looking back to check on Nancy. The car soon flipped; Sam and Barbara survived.
“I just really had a tremendous problem trying to sort that out,” he was saying the other day. “How was I ever going to get this thing back together again? I blamed myself. I just didn’t know.”
Not long after Nancy’s funeral, “I was saved, as the Christians say. I found that higher power. I was really at peace. I came to have almost a calling. It’s unbelievable how many coaches and other friends have come to me since 1962 with similar experiences. I tell them: ‘I know. I know the pain.’ ”
He is asked if he would be coaching Jerry Falwell’s football team just now had that not happened.
Liberty University is a teen-ager on its third name change, founded in 1971 by Falwell as Lynchburg Baptist College and known as Liberty Baptist College from 1975 to 1985.
“I made an announcement, when the school was a year old, that we were planning to build an NCAA Division I athletic program,” Falwell said. “Of course, everybody smiled. Especially sports editors. They knew what was involved. I didn’t. I know now why they smiled, because it has been a tough one.”
Liberty has moved upward, from the National Christian College Athletic Association to NAIA to NCAA Division II to Division I since last year in every sport except football. Rutigliano, 56, was hired to help with that final step from Division I-AA, which even Falwell admits is “probably 10 years away.”
“I’ve said there are enough Evangelicals out there to give us what the Mormons have given to Brigham Young,” Falwell said. “That is a world-class program. There are 4 million Mormons in the United States. According to the Gallup Poll, there are 60 million Evangelicals in the United States.”
In the small room off the auditorium where moments before he’d welcomed the 7,000-plus student body and faculty during the first chapel of the school year, Falwell paused and said: “We have 15 times the potential Brigham Young has. ... We’ve done our bragging. Now we’ve got to produce.”
As not every student is drawn toward Liberty, with its dress code (shirt and tie for men and dresses or skirts for women until after classes) and mandatory attendance for chapel service at 10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, neither are most football coaches. Especially ones who, like Rutigliano, have been to -- and been kicked off -- the highest level of the game and seem to be living comfortably away from it.
“I’m not Joe Paterno or Don Shula,” Rutigliano said. “But for every job there’s the guy. I wanted to be the guy, so I could go in with enthusiasm and some degree of commitment to get it done on the part of the people who wanted me.
“We can do it here.
“As a Christian and as a guy with some degree of values, I felt comfortable here. If I wanted to pray in front of my football team, I didn’t have to worry about the (American Civil Liberties Union). If I wanted to random test my tight end or fullback, I didn’t have to worry about the Fourth Amendment.
“My competitive side would have kept me from any place where they didn’t want it. Just to get into that left-hand lane. Maybe not over the speed limit, but just fast enough to make it fun.”
A couple of enormous holes in the ground suggest Liberty is on the move athletically faster than any other college in the country. A 10,000-seat combination basketball arena and convocation center is supposed to rise from one hole in slightly more than a year; the football stadium is expected to be finished within weeks, not for the season opener Sept. 9 but possibly for the James Madison game Sept. 30.
One significant void, the coach who guided Liberty to an 8-3 record last season, and to within five points of being unbeaten, serves as a reminder that steps forward are not without pain and controversy.
On Dec. 19, the same day he was named coach of the year in Virginia, Morgan Hout was called off the road and told he would no longer be Liberty’s coach. He was offered a job as an assistant athletic director, but declined. He is now a volunteer assistant at Baylor.
“I think you could say I was devastated,” Hout told Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times & World News. “I’m not bitter with Dr. Falwell, but he’ll never be out preaching somewhere and receive a call saying they’re going to bring in Billy Graham to replace him.”
That 8-3 performance lifted Hout’s overall record for five years to 20-29-1. Falwell said he’d been considering a change for “a couple of years.” Hout began hearing talk that he would be replaced, and by whom, after Rutigliano spoke at a Liberty chapel service in March 1988.
“I’ve felt from the beginning that everything rises and falls on leadership,” said Falwell of a collection of Liberty coaches that includes former Yankee star Bobby Richardson for baseball and now has Rutigliano as the centerpiece.
Rutigliano gives Liberty a degree of public attention impossible at this time with Hout. National papers lately have written more about Liberty than the local paper has. What Hout gave Rutigliano is a veteran team capable of making the playoffs and possibly winning the Division I-AA championship.
“As long as I’m in charge of the schedule,” said Rutigliano, smiling, “we’ve got a chance to win. Because that’s more important than talent. The Italians have a saying: ‘Go slow; go sanely and then you go voluntarily.’ More coaches lose their jobs because of scheduling than they do because of recruiting.”
He enjoys recruiting. The new stadium, which can be enlarged in increments of 12,000, a recruiting budget increased from $17,000 to $100,000 this year and his considerable charm should keep Liberty well stocked. An even better recruiter in his own right, Falwell also will join Rutigliano in living rooms.
“You’ve got to want to be here,” said the coach, listing the Liberty restrictions: no drinking, no tobacco, random drug testing for all students, the dress code, no coed dorms. (Just to make sure nobody can use the excuse of accidentally stumbling into the wrong place, “Male” and “Female” appear over the entrances to each dorm.)
Liberty’s admissions requirements, according to an official, are graduation from high school with a C average. Compliance with NCAA rules means that scholarship athletes have a tougher time getting admitted than other students.
“I like it here,” Rutigliano said, “because we are presenting a program that a lot of people say we can’t sell. It (public opinion about Liberty’s moral stance) is shifting. It isn’t a tidal wave, but it’s shifting. Now I can talk to you. Maybe we don’t have the same spiritual values but nobody’s gonna push away anymore. Everybody’s scared to death. Parents want to send their kids where there’s a good chance of getting them back. We can do that here.”
Selling has been the key at Liberty since its beginning. No longer do players put gospel tracts inside their helmets and pass them out to opponents after the game. Still, players such as guard Barry Rice say: “Football is my ministry. If Jesus were a football player, he’d play fair, he’d play clean and he’d put the guy across the line on his butt.”
Liberty has emphasized sports, Falwell said, “because kids don’t want to go to school where you’re not playing ball. ... We believe two languages are understood by young people everywhere. Music and athletics. They might not care for your politics. They might not want to hear the preaching. For music and sports, they’re there.”
To achieve Division I-A football status, to gain admission to the Southern Conference (“They tell us we should be optimistic,” Falwell said), Liberty must meet several NCAA requirements. Among them is averaging 17,000 fans for one year out of a four-year period.
“And you can’t give the tickets away,” said J.B. Coincon, the fellow who occupies the newly created position of assistant athletic director for promotions and ticket sales. “You’ve got to sell ‘em. I’m here to do the selling.”
Lynchburg’s population is only about 68,000 -- and as many folks seem to dislike Falwell as adore him. So Coincon’s job is difficult.
So far, more than 300 season tickets have seen sold. If that seems paltry for such an ambitious program, Coincon smiles and says it’s about 40 times better than a year ago. Because nobody concentrated on season tickets, only eight got sold.
“Poor Lynchburg got cheated in history, so there’s no reason for tourists to come here,” Coincon said. “If Lee had walked another day, he’d have been here instead of Appomattox; if Patrick Henry had been born 40 miles farther north, he’d have been here; five presidents of the United States were born within 100 miles, but none here. We need to have a reason for tourists.”
Such as the Liberty Flames.
Rutigliano has experienced ne’rly everything possible in football, starting with his first step into the big time as an assistant to Lou Saban at Maryland for one year (1966).
“Lou told me he was going to be there five years and then he’d be athletic director,” Rutigliano said. “He said he was there to stay; no way would he go back to the pros. (Maryland had hired him from the Buffalo Bills.)
“I’m in the locker room the week before we play Florida State (in the final game of Saban’s only season), small-talking, saying my wife got this great deal on carpeting and that we’re going to carpet the whole house.
“Lou calls me aside and whispers: ‘Don’t carpet the house.’ He’d gotten a call from the Denver Broncos, a 10-year contract to be head coach and general manager, a deal so good Bear Bryant wanted to talk to him about it at the Senior Bowl.”
After 11 years as an assistant with four pro teams, Rutigliano became a head coach in the NFL -- and came within a last-minute interception of leading the Cleveland Browns to the AFC title game in 1980. With the Browns he started the Inner Circle, “the first and only drug program that dealt with after-care in the NFL,” then was fired after a 1-7 start in 1984.
“One time, after we’d beaten Pittsburgh, Pat (Modell, the owner’s wife) came up and told me how great we’d played. Hugged me and everything. I didn’t get the thank you out before she said: ‘But we’ve got to beat ‘em in Pittsburgh.’
“I told my wife later that I wouldn’t be growing old gracef 3/4lly in this job.”
Rutigliano said he was making more money in broadcasting and other non-football work than he will at Liberty. He will caution the impatient Falwell not to move too quickly in football.
“For where we’re at, with our budget and our facilities,” Rutigliano said, “we’ve got a chance to get into the (Division I-AA) tournament every year. We can get in the tournament and win the national championship.
“We can’t jump into the top 12 (of Division I-A teams) right away and I don’t want to be in the middle of the pack. I don’t know if we’ll ever (move to I-A). Dr. Falwell likes to talk about playing Notre Dame. I told him: ‘Then you coach the team.’ ”