The average observer walking through the gates to Williams Stadium would likely see it for what it is: an attractive, well-appointed facility, especially for a school in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) classification. The atmosphere is infectious, the surroundings picturesque -- but the really interesting part of the entire experience is the story behind it.
While many programs one would visit on Saturdays have generations of tradition, pageantry, and long-standing facilities, this university essentially grew up around the town in which it resides. The school was founded by religious leader Jerry Falwell just over 45 years ago as Lynchburg Baptist College, and only became Liberty University in the mid-80s. The football program began two years into the school's history, opening play as an NAIA school, before transitioning to NCAA play (Division II in 1981, then Division I-AA in 1989).
Former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano guided the Flames through their first 10 years of Division I play, producing a first-round NFL draft pick (former Steelers, Dolphins, Ravens, and Jets tight end Eric Green) and winning 67 of the 120 games he coached in Lynchburg. His tenure also helped open then-Willard May Stadium, the facility that houses the Flames. Nearly 7,000 more fans can catch a game in Williams Stadium -- since renamed for former financial investor and sports owner Arthur L. Williams, Jr., who contributed a significant sum to the university -- now than the number that could on that late October day in 1989 when the gates first swung open.
The university around it has swelled, too, growing from those humble beginnings in the 1970s to a sizable physical and online presence that annually educates over 100,000 students. The school's growth has earned several distinctions among Christian educators, non-profit universities and Virginia schools. There are now over 540 programs of study offered through either the physical or electronic branches of the university, and Liberty continues to purchase land around the city to accommodate its ever-increasing growth. The school's brass has continued to do this while being a responsible partner with the city of Lynchburg, as evidenced by its population increase of nearly 25,000 residents from the estimated 55,000 or so that inhabited the Hill City in 1971.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
When last we visited Williams Stadium, we saw many of the "typical" stadium concession items. Fear not, because those are still here and plentiful at numerous points of sale. Popcorn ($4 for a cup or $7 for an absolutely massive bucket), chips ($2.25), and peanuts ($4) will satisfy the munching needs of almost any fan. There is also a "Classics" menu at Flames contests, offering such standards as chicken tenders ($5.50), nachos ($5) and pepperoni pizza slices ($3.25). Dunkin' Donuts also operates a location, with donuts ($1.25 for a single, $10.50 for a dozen) and Munchkins (donut holes; $4 for ten), along with Dunkaccinos (Dunkin's signature drink) for $3.50. Throw in fountain Coca-Cola products ($3.25 for a 20-ounce, $5.25 for a 32-ounce), bottled sodas and water ($3), and coffee or cocoa -- $2.50, and a must for cold central Virginia days late in the season -- to wash down those food items, and this would be a perfect amount of food and drink to suffice.
Fans can really step outside of the norm, though, in one of a few ways. While hot dogs ($3.50), corn dogs ($4.50), and hamburgers or cheeseburgers ($5) are offered at these stands, there are two offerings one might not expect to see at a football game. Veggie burgers ($5) and the Flames Burger ($6.50) help to please the taste buds of the health-conscious and those who crave a bit of spice. The Flames Burger is advertised thusly:
"Angus Beef burger with pepperjack cheese, fried egg, hot peppers, onions, topped with homemade spicy mayo on a bun. Mmmhmm...spicy!"
If you are more adventurous -- and tolerant of spice -- than I, this may be your new go-to dish.
The real treat, though, is on the side of the stadium across from the press box. A number of local food trucks and vendors set up shop just behind the top of the grandstand, including Cravings, Action Gyro, Mama Crockett's Cider Donuts, Beach Hut Shaved Ice, I Scream, You Scream and more. These are all really great things to find at a game -- especially apple cider donuts -- but Action Gyro is a truly unusual offering at a college football game. Fans who crave an unusual meal offering can snag a gyro ($6.50 for a "skinny," $8 for a "fatty"), manakish ($3), chips and drinks.
Prices might be a bit higher than what one might expect, but the amount -- and quality -- of food rises to the occasion.
You'll see it on shirts seemingly everywhere you walk on your way to Williams Stadium and once you get inside the gates: Be Early, Be Loud and Wear Red!
This is the slogan for attendees at Liberty sporting events, and fans live this motto. The stadium quickly becomes a sea of red -- a condition that doesn't go unnoticed by one Liberty fan and news site -- and creates quite the exciting atmosphere. Numerous student groups, including Jerry's Jokers (an homage to the current university leader, Jerry Falwell Jr.), line the front rows of the student section opposite the press box, with the talented -- and loud -- band taking the section of the stands closest to the hill behind the end zone. This all provides the feeling of an FBS university, a level to which the school's current administration aspires.
The PA announcer (who calls, "IT'S THIIIRRRRRRRRRRD DOWNNNN!" before imploring Liberty fans to get loud on pivotal downs), video board in the end zone nearest the field house, scoreboard atop the student section, and ribbon board between the lower and upper decks on the main seating side contribute to that high-level feel. Liberty's synthetic turf surface on the field also creates a striking, dramatic look as the stadium unfolds before you as you approach your seat.
The university is so devoted to the fan experience that it publishes a page of promotions and traditions for those attending a game, along with employing a position they call the Director of Fan Experience and Promotions.
The only downfall with all of this is that some of the students could still use a bit of convincing. On the night we visited, Liberty experienced a bit of a rough first half, which saw a number of students streaming out of the stadium at the break. This left what was a boisterous student section barely audible as the game wore on.
Liberty University is just minutes from Wards Road (US Highway 29 Business), one of the primary areas in Lynchburg for shopping and dining. Chain restaurants representing almost every cuisine imaginable line the roadside areas, along with a number of big-box stores, hotels and other outposts. This should satisfy fans of all ages and preferences. Be advised, though, that with so many shops in a small stretch of road -- along with a seemingly endless number of traffic lights -- Wards Road is quite the traffic nightmare.
Ledo Pizza is one of the options in the Wards Crossing area, and it is one pizza fans need to try. Founded in Maryland, Ledo offers a slightly different take on the standard pie. The sauce is a bit sweeter than conventional pizza chains, the crust is more flaky and the pizza is served on cafeteria-style trays. Sandwiches, salads, pasta and appetizers are also available on the Ledo menu. Doc's Diner and Macado's are within a short walk of the stadium, and offer mostly traditional American fare. Doc's Diner is open based on the university's schedule, so be sure to call ahead if this is your preferred destination.
If you have a car, you may want to take a side trip to La Villa on Timberlake Road. Lynchburg is not exactly a haven for Italian food, but La Villa offers some of the best in town. The ownership and staff are super-friendly, taking the time to stop by your table and talk during your meal. The prices are also quite reasonable, considering the portion sizes.
Hotels are also quite prevalent for those who are looking to stay the night -- or longer -- in the Hill City. Extended Stay America is right across the street from the stadium, the LaHaye Ice Center, and Liberty Baseball Stadium, and a Fairfield Inn & Suites is just across US Highway 460 and up the hill. Numerous additional hotels are within a few minutes' drive, including a handful near the airport.
Fan support at Liberty is an interesting situation. On one hand, the night we attended featured a listed attendance of 15,354, which was labeled "disappointing" by multiple sources. This number of fans would be sufficient to support an FBS program, however, as there is a requirement of a 15,000-fan average. That said, early-season Saturday afternoons and nights are gorgeous in Lynchburg, and should draw nearly-packed houses with the competitive product on the field.
As great as the stadium environment, special student groups and the like may be, the early departure by much of the student populace is a pretty considerable concern. The first half of most games should be outstanding, and on par with many other schools in the Commonwealth. The second half may not be as much so, especially for games that are not so close.
If your travels lead you to central Virginia by air, you will be pleasantly surprised to see that Lynchburg Regional Airport is just 5-10 minutes from campus. Though the flight selection into LYH is considerably limited, the airport's proximity is quite nice. The campus is easily reached via taxi or your rental car.
While we are speaking of easy access, it should be noted that the stadium is located along University Boulevard, within steps of US Highways 460 and 29. These are the two major east-west and north-south (respectively) highways in the city, and you can be on your way to anywhere in Lynchburg or surrounding cities in minutes.
Parking is free for Liberty games, and there are a number of lots available to serve every purpose. Much of the close-by parking is reserved for Flames Club members, but this is not too big of a problem. The school offers an updated parking map on its website, and there are helpful signs and police officers to guide you throughout the vicinity of the stadium. Thomas Road Baptist Church, atop the hill between the university and Candlers Mountain Road, also offers general game parking.
GLTC Transit offers bus service around the city of Lynchburg. The 4B route travels to River Ridge Mall and the university, among other destinations. The transit company's website outlines each available route in considerable detail, so if you wish to ride the bus, this is quite helpful.
Entering and navigating Williams Stadium are also relatively easy operations. The gates occasionally draw significant lines, but move quickly. Be mindful, however, that Liberty employs the same clear bag policy as that practiced by the NFL. This will save you a lot of time and aggravation as you enter the building. Once inside, the concourse rings nearly the entirety of the stadium, with wide aisles and easily-reached seats. The lone exception in terms of walking the stadium comes at the open end of the facility, as the sidewalks end near the Football Operations Center.
A Liberty football game is a fun, fast-paced experience that leaves those who visit feeling as though they have seen a game at the highest levels of college football. Unfortunately, along with that high-level experience comes commensurate prices. Premium seats (near the 50) are $30 apiece, with reserved (nearby those seats) at $25. General admission (toward each end zone) is $20. The only discounted prices on any of these seats come in the general admission sections, with a $5 discount for local heroes (first responders), seniors (60-plus) and youths (ages 3-18).
Concession prices are a bit high, but the value equals the price, in most cases. Programs are $4, which only adds to the cost.
A family of four would pay well over $100 for a Flames game in the least expensive seats, which is about what one might expect. Some breaks would certainly not hurt, however.
The free parking -- and the extremely nice guides who lead you to it -- bear further mention. Lynchburg is a close-knit town at its core, even with the growth enhanced by the university, and that small-town atmosphere is on display with everyone you will encounter at a game. Service is always provided with a smile.
There is much to see inside the stadium, but there is gorgeous scenery surrounding you outside the stadium. Your seat is nestled under an hour's drive east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are visible from many parts of the campus. Liberty Mountain is also nearby, offering the Snowflex all-season ski slope and numerous hiking and biking opportunities. The air is clear, and so is your line of sight to the majesty of much of central and western Virginia.
There is a small ring of honor atop the stadium near the press box, and it honors three figures key to Liberty football. The numbers 71 (for Jerry Falwell, with both Falwell and the university's opening year, 1971, recognized by the "71" flag atop the hill) and 86 (Green) are part of that ring of honor, along with the name of former head coach Sam Rutigliano. Though Liberty's football history may not be as robust as that of other schools, it is wonderful to see how the Flames honor those who helped build the program's foundation.
Liberty offers a world-class communications program among its many academic focuses, and one of the fruits of that program can be found at each game. The Flames offer a radio network, with Alan York -- and his legendary "light 'em up!" call after a Flames touchdown -- on the mic. The university also maintains LFSN, or the Liberty Flames Sports Network, that offers a level of television production on par with any other national provider. Many of their broadcasts are syndicated by ESPN3 and other regional carriers. The television production even carries over to the video board after the game, as the post-game press conference is displayed on the board for fans to watch.
Whether you only know of Liberty from television ads, or grew up ten minutes from the campus -- as did I -- Lynchburg and Liberty University deserve a visit, if for no other reason than to take in the experience. If you want to see high-quality football surrounded by friendly people in a gorgeous environment, this spot should find its way onto your itinerary.
1989 was a year of new beginnings for Liberty University. It was their first year of being a I-AA Independent, and could be considered a success, with a record of 7-3. They had a new coach in Sam Rutigliano, who had previously coached in the NFL, taking the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs twice. Rutigliano would stay 11 seasons with Liberty. They also had a new home for the football team - Willard May Stadium - where they were victorious in the opening game over Towson.
A lot has changed in 25 years. The Flames have played in the Big South Conference since 2002, and have won or shared five conference titles. Turner Gil joined as the head coach in 2012, and the name Willard May was removed in 1994 and replaced with that of Arthur L. Williams, Jr., honoring a major contributor to the stadium. The capacity has also grown from 12,000 to 19,200, with plans to expand to 30,000 in the coming years. Other amenities such as luxury suites and scoreboards have been added over the years, making Williams Stadium a great place to watch a football game.
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3777 Candlers Mountain Rd
Lynchburg, VA 24502