H. Brandt Ayers: Four horsemen ... again!?
Dec 02, 2012 | 2897 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Liberty coach Turner Gill. Photo: Associated Press/file
Liberty coach Turner Gill. Photo: Associated Press/file
Does the resurgence of Notre Dame football mean that the Reformation has ended, that the faith of the Irish is the one, true, dominant faith?

Not yet. That great Catholic institution’s storied team must first meet the Protestants of the SEC. As this was written, the contest in the Georgia Dome had not been played to decide who would meet the Irish in the national championship.

Because it makes a better story, and because Alabama has the superior team, let’s say the Tide beats Georgia Saturday. That would set up the classic rags-to-riches story — an all-American fable.

On one side you have a bunch of rough, unpolished immigrant boys who somehow were molded into a winning team, one of whom was Knute Rockne, a Norwegian who became a legendary coach.

On the other side is a collection of shoeless good-ole boys, scorned by sportswriters in the East and the West, one of whom was so poor he’d wrestle a bear for $5: Paul “Bear” Bryant, who’d win national championships.

Those are the “grandfathers” of today’s more polished jacket-and-tie teams, schooled in how to speak to the media but each of whom plays tough, gritty defense. Are they destined to war against each other in the future?

If so, it would be a pale echo of the Thirty Years War touched off by the 16th century heresy of Martin Luther and the anti-papist Reformation, which followed — call it a thirty season rivalry.

Of course, chance can doom or befriend even the best programs; it would be folly to predict who will play even in the 2014 championship, and … wait, what is that I hear?

Lively Baptist hymns rolling out of the foothills of western Virginia from the campus of faith-based, burgeoning Liberty University, whose ambition is to bring the world to Christ — through football.

That high pulpit was the vision of Liberty’s founder, the late Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority fame, which is being carried on by his son, Jerry Jr., the school’s chancellor. “Football’s role in making Liberty a national institution was my father’s vision from the very beginning.”

The elder Falwell imagined Liberty vs. Notre Dame, a rivalry of Catholics against Protestants — more echoes of the Reformation and Thirty Years War?

Turner Gill, a former Nebraska All-American and University of Kansas coach hired last year to build up the program, saw dual potential to attaining major power status: one, making the 82,000 online students feel part of the institution through televised games, and the primary goal, “God has called us to be examples and to change the world,” he said. “We can touch millions.”

Is Falwell Senior’s dream totally outlandish: a former Bible college winning games and winning souls to Christ in great cathedrals filled with tens of thousands, voices uplifted, “Onward Christian Soldiers”?

Not really. For one thing, Liberty is prosperous; its online university has mushroomed its assets by $900 million over the past five years.

The consulting group Carr Sports Consulting of Gainesville, Fla., hired to direct the build-up, believes it can. “They are a quantum leap ahead of any school we’ve worked with,” said Bill Carr. “Liberty is the best prepared and has, by far, the most resources. It’s simply a matter of time before they get there.”

Notre Dame never thought of its football team in evangelical terms, but allusions to faith and the Bible are common, as in the legend of the four horsemen created by journalist Grantland Rice in his coverage of a 13-7 win over Army.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden,” he wrote for the Herald Tribune in his oft-quoted 1924 story.

Rice’s allusion was to the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation, but he got it wrong. The four horses were white, red, black and pale: Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

It is within the bounds of imagination to believe that Liberty, with its money, first-class facilities and sense of mission, could recruit enough Tebows to field a team that could compete with Notre Dame.

But Falwell Junior would find it hard to get into a conference that would allow them to join, not just as a competitive team, but for a purely evangelical purpose.

The Falwells’ error is believing that Liberty is The Church. If it is anything, it is a denomination. Football is the religion, the great American Civil Religion that is worshipped by Catholic and Protestant alike.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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