There was a powerful calm in the air as Barton College Head Coach Ron Lievense prepared for the start of the 2007-08 men’s basketball season.
Alone in the Bulldogs’ locker room in rural Wilson, N.C., Lievense moved quietly from locker to locker, praying. He prayed not for a return of the international fame that accompanied Barton’s national championship victory a season ago, but for each of his players, that they would look to the Lord for guidance and give Him the glory in all things.
“I’ve grown to really respect Coach Lievense as a man and as a leader on the Barton campus,” said Scott Williams, assistant area director of the Triangle Area FCA, which serves 12 counties in central North Carolina. “He is a remarkable guy, and his players respond to him so well; because not only does he want what’s best for them in games and in practice, but he truly cares about them off the court.”
Senior Anthony Atkinson scored Barton's final
10 points in 39 seconds
to clinch the Championship title.
Lievense’s door is always open to his team. During the holidays, the coach and his wife, Darla, invite the players over with the hope of furthering deep, meaningful relationships with the young men who call Wilson their temporary home.
“We try to talk about spiritual things with our players, because I just have a short window of time with them,” said Lievense, who serves as one of the Huddle Coaches for Barton’s vibrant FCA Huddle along with Darla and Barton’s assistant athletic director, Sheryl Neff. “I pray for my players in my devotion time—most of all that they will seek the Lord in their lives. If they don’t, I feel like I’ve really failed as a coach. If they don’t remember much about me 10 or 15 years from now, I hope they’ll remember how much we cared for them and prayed for them.”
Back on the hardwood at Barton College (a Christian school), every practice and game begins and ends with the Lord.
“When we start a day, we’re doing it with prayer,” Lievense said. “I never wanted it to be just a pre-game thing where our guys are thinking that God’s going to help us win. I don’t know that He cares which team wins the game. What I do think is that the Lord blesses those who honor Him and live for Him. And all I can say is whether we win a game or not, I will praise Him the same.”
“If it’s about the wins and losses, I think the job is very empty. If the job is about making an impact and helping young people grow spiritually, emotionally, mentally and intellectually, then I think you’re doing what you are supposed to do.”
– Coach Ron Lievense
But even Lievense agrees that it took a miracle for a small school with just 900 full-time students to storm through last season’s NCAA Division II tournament to win its final three games in improbable, David-versus-Goliath fashion.
Senior Anthony Atkinson—Barton’s spiritual leader a season ago—put the Bulldogs into the 2007 Final Four with a 28-foot, running three-pointer against Grand Valley State, then nailed a key free throw with less than two seconds remaining in the following game to give Barton a shot at the title.
During the championship game, the 5-foot-10 point guard led one of the most spectacular comebacks in college basketball history, scoring Barton’s final 10 points in just 39 seconds of play. ESPN, Fox Sports and other major media outlets splashed footage of the Bulldogs’ win across the globe, giving the tiny college exposure like it had never seen before.
“If you went and interviewed the guys on the team—whether they were believers or not—they’d all have an answer as to how they saw the hand of the Lord working last season,” Williams said. “Because of the love, care and concern Coach Lievense has for his guys, it all came together on the court last year.
“When you tie a team together spiritually with the Lord at the head of it, it binds people in ways you would never see otherwise.”
Countless interviews, appearances and media events continue to greet the Barton basketball team at every turn. Last summer, Atkinson, Lievense and their families traveled to ESPN’s 2007 ESPY Awards to represent the Bulldogs for their nomination in the “Best Finish” category.
“If you don’t keep yourself grounded in the Lord and know where your help comes from, you may start thinking that you’re the reason for all the success,” Lievense said. “If that happens, you’ll fall and hit the ground hard. It was easy to stay focused. I know how inadequate I am, and I know how much I am relying on Christ in my daily walk.”
Atkinson, a first-team Division II All-American, and several other players graduated following last season’s championship, leaving their long-time coach with an energetic but inexperienced Bulldog squad this year.
“Everywhere we go, teams are promoting us as the defending champions, so we’re getting everybody’s best game,” Lievense said. “Our young players are in the frying pan every single night, under fire and under pressure to succeed. We’re also playing a very stiff schedule this year because, after our success last season, a lot of people wouldn’t play us. We’ve played three games against teams that were in the Elite 8 last year just to try to fill out the schedule.”
"Every year I give my team to the Lord, and I don't know what He's going to build. But last year, He built the Taj Majal."
-Coach Ron Lievense
Lievense’s greatest blessing, he says, is the platform he’s been given to boldly proclaim the name of Jesus Christ, whether that is at area FCA Huddles, other local speaking engagements or on nationally broadcast ESPN interviews.
“The Lord could have brought anyone into this position to be the basketball coach at Barton, and I was chosen,” Lievense said. “I look at this job as a ministry, and I’m fortunate to be working at an institution where I have support from our athletic director and president to be a witness and take a stand for the things of the Lord.”
During the ups and downs that accompany every basketball season, Lievense is thankful for “outstanding” support from within the close-knit Wilson community and especially from fellow members of Raleigh Road Baptist Church, who frequently hit the road to follow the Bulldogs as the team battles through tough Conference Carolinas schedules.
“They pray for us and cheer for us, and it’s a great support having those people, as well as our students and faculty, coming to the games,” Lievense said.
At the end of last season, the Bulldogs held a community-wide reception to celebrate the team’s national championship win. When it was Lievense’s turn to address the crowd, his message was clear:
“In the Bible, it says ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer labors in vain,’” he told the thousands of fans and community members in attendance. “I work hard and do the best I can to prepare my team, but ultimately the Lord is going to build the house ... Every year I give my team to the Lord, and I don’t know what He’s going to build. But last year, He built the Taj Mahal.”
Over 12 seasons, Barton has won more than two-thirds of its games with Lievense at the helm, and this season has turned out much the same. As tournament play approaches, the Bulldogs are hoping to pose a strong threat for the conference title.
“In this profession, you’re only subject to being successful based on blessings from the almighty God and having great players,” Lievense said. “A coach is only as good as the players he has. Good players make good coaches.
“If it’s about the wins and losses, I think the job is very empty,” he added. “If the job is about making an impact and helping young people grow spiritually, emotionally, mentally and intellectually, then I think you’re doing what you are supposed to do.”
You’ve Gotta See This!
The 2007 NCAA Div. II National Championship game’s last 45 seconds can be seen on YouTube. We highly recommend you check it out! Use the key words, “Barton College final 45.” Also, tune in to STV Radio on March 29 to hear from the Bulldogs’ Head Coach Ron Lievense.
*For For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos Courtesy of Richard Orr Sports