Get the Max With Minium: Playing Liberty On and Off the Field
By ODU Athletics
Written by: Harry Minium
Let’s set aside for a few minutes the astounding $1.32 million check that Old Dominion will collect for playing at Liberty University this weekend, and the miracle worker who made it possible.
Instead, let’s focus on a group called Jerry’s Jokers, who epitomize the very difficult atmosphere that the Monarchs will face when they open against Liberty Saturday night at 6 in Lynchburg.
Jerry’s Jokers is a student group that hopes to make life miserable for the Monarchs. They paint their faces like clowns, and since clowns have always freaked me out, well, I’m sure they will be intimidating.
Their nickname is an affectionate tip of the hat to Jerry Falwell, Liberty’s at-times controversial president, who embraced President Trump during the primaries and is an unabashed, pro-life conservative.
They will sit right behind the ODU bench and scream for the Flames, and they will hardly be alone. If the weather holds up, Liberty officials expect to break the school record of 22,151 fans who turned out a few years ago when the Flames took on FCS powerhouse Montana.
Williams Stadium was recently expanded to 25,000 seats, although some of the finishes on things such as a new press box aren’t quite complete.
ODU has sold more than 1,000 tickets, and perhaps twice that many Monarch fans will be there, so there will be some blue in the sea of fans wearing red.
“This is the kind of atmosphere that makes you want to play football,” ODU coach Bobby Wilder aid.
There’s almost no way to understate how big this game is for Liberty. The Flames have rarely been able to attract in-state foes to play in Lynchburg. This is their first game as a transitional Football Bowl Subdivision member and ODU is the first FBS program ever to play at Liberty.
This is the biggest home game Liberty has played in a long time, if not ever.
It’s just as big for ODU. The Monarchs play seven teams that went to bowl games, including No. 20 Virginia Tech, and were picked by the media to finish sixth in the seven-team C-USA East Division.
Given the road ahead, this is as close to a must-win as an opener can be.
Wilder said the game could come down to a matchup between ODU’s defensive line and Liberty quarterback Stephen Buckshot Calvert, a junior from Plantation, Fla. who will be one of the best the Monarchs face this season.
Named for NASCAR driver Buckshot Jones, Calvert has thrown for 5,294 yards, 44 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions in two seasons at Liberty. He was at his best in last season’s opener at Baylor, when he tossed for 447 yards and three touchdowns as Liberty shocked the Bears, 48-45.
ODU’s defensive line is supposed to be among the best in FBS, and certainly near the top in mid-major football. Much is expected this season of Oshane Ximines, Daniel Appouh, Miles Fox, Tim Ward and Pat Toal.
And much will be needed at Liberty.
Now, let’s reverse course and talk about the money.
The $1.32 million ODU is being paid is by far the biggest check a mid-major football school has stroked to another mid-major. It’s far more than ODU received a few years ago from the SEC’s Vanderbilt ($1,000,000) and the ACC’s NC State ($800,000).
Liberty has a ton of money, thanks to its online enrollment of nearly 100,000 students. That’s why it has a $29.1 million indoor football training facility and why Williams Stadium is among the nicest ODU will see this season.
But not even Liberty would shell out that kind of money for a game with ODU without extenuating circumstances. The circumstances were very unusual, and many things had to fall into place for ODU to garner the $1.32 million payout.
In early 2017, Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw called Bruce Stewart, AKA, The Miracle Worker, and asked him if ODU could come play at Liberty in 2018.
McCaw had three home games, but needed a fourth against an FBS opponent in order to meet NCAA guidelines. He said no one else had availability on their schedules.
Stewart, the senior associate athletic director in charge of football scheduling for ODU, said he’d like to help, but couldn’t. He was looking for a guarantee game that would pay the Monarchs upwards of $1.5 million.
He told McCaw that he was talking with Power 5 schools and that sort of ended the conversation.
McCaw then cut a deal with Auburn for a $1.25 million guarantee. He connected again with Stewart and offered, essentially, to pay ODU what Auburn was paying the Flames.
“It made sense for ODU and sense for us,” McCaw said at the time.
Stewart negotiated the guarantee up another $100,000, and then went to work.
“There were five or six games that had to be moved at different schools,” Stewart added. “We needed Virginia to move our game with them back to 2019. Fortunately, that worked for them.
“Everything just fell into place.”
The enormity of the payout brought Liberty and ODU national headlines.
This is not the first time Stewart has moved mountains to claim a scheduling coup for ODU. He skillfully put together ODU’s early schedules in 2009 and 2010, balancing a couple of name games with a generous portion of Division II and non-scholarship teams.
As a result, ODU finished 9-2 and 8-3 those first two seasons, and football took off in Norfolk.
When ODU announced it was moving up to FBS, he was forced to negotiate enough guarantees from four Power 5 road games in 2013 to pay six FCS opponents to come to Norfolk. He managed to craft a schedule that allowed ODU to go 8-4, and break even on the payouts.
That same year, he and athletic director Wood Selig persuaded Virginia Tech to come to Norfolk (and that game is just three weeks away). That opened the flood gates for ACC teams. North Carolina and N.C. State have come to Norfolk, and Wake Forest and Virginia will be coming here in the near future.
Liberty, too, is on future schedules. The Flames and Monarchs meet again in Lynchburg in 2021 and Norfolk in 2022.
“This could turn out to be a very good rivalry,” said Stewart, who helped Coastal Carolina begin its football program before he came to ODU.
“I know how they got up every year when Coastal played at Liberty. I think they’ll be more fired up about ODU.”
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