Since the A-Sun was formed in September of 1978, 32 schools, including the present 10 members, have called the Macon-based conference home at one time or another.
Of those 32 schools, only two are assured a spot in this years NCAAs mens basketball tournament. They are this years A-Sun tournament champion, Florida Gulf Coast, and last years A-Sun tournament winner, Belmont. Florida Gulf Coast earned the berth with a win over Mercer in this years tournament championship game, while Belmont took the Ohio Valley Conferences title in its first year in that conference after spending 10 seasons in the A-Sun, from where advanced to the NCAA tournament five times.
Twenty-two schools have come and gone in the A-Sun since its beginning. In fact Mercer, Stetson (1985) and Jacksonville (1998) have been in the conference longer than a decade, and those schools, along with East Tennessee State (joined the A-Sun in 2005) are the only ones that have been a Division I member for more than 10 years. The remaining six schools came up from the Division II ranks. Lipscomb joined the A-Sun in 2003, Kennesaw State and North Florida in 2005, USC Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast in 2007 and Northern Kentucky in 2012.
Of the 22 schools that departed, many are no longer in the conferences they left for. Texas-San Antonio originally went with the Southland then to the WAC and next year will be in Conference USA, along with Florida International and Florida Atlantic, who both are currently the Sun Belt. Georgia State left for the Colonial Athletic Association but will call the Sun Belt home beginning next fall. The College of Charleston is currently in the Southern Conference, but next season it will be in the Colonial. Samford departed the A-Sun for the Ohio Valley but now is in the Southern.
If Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, also in the Southern Conference, both join the Sun Belt, it could have a trickle-down effect on the A-Sun. The College of Charleston already has made the decision to leave the conference, and Davidson is rumored to be a candidate for other conferences, as well.
Should Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and Davidson join Charleston in saying goodbye to the Southern Conference, it would leave that conference with eight schools and only seven scholarship-playing football programs. Even if Davidson doesnt leave, it competes in football at the non-scholarship level and plays in the Pioneer league, along with Mercer. UNC Greensboro, also a Southern Conference member, does not sponsor football.
If all that is speculated takes place, would Mercer be a possible Southern Conference candidate? I think so for a lot of reasons. Mercer is in the Southern Conference footprint, with all schools in that conference within 400 miles of Macon. Currently, Mercer has two A-Sun opponents that are more than 500 miles away.
Mercer will begin competing in football this fall, and even though it is non-scholarship at the moment, there is nothing that indicates it wouldnt take a long look at moving the program. I doubt the Southern Conference would accept another school that would not play football in its conference. Mercers facilities match up with any in that conference, and it would join peer private institutions that include Furman, Samford, Elon, Wofford and Davidson, with all the schools going after the same type students, as well as student athletes.
East Tennessee State, a former Southern Conference member, and Kennesaw State would also probably be candidates. Both schools have announced they will be playing football in the 2015 season. With Mercer starting football this fall and Kennesaw State and East Tennessee State still two years away, it should give the Bears the inside track on Southern Conference membership if it wants it or if it is offered.
Thats the bigger question, if Mercer would want to make a move. Take football out of the equation, and I am of the opinion the A-Sun is as good a conference as the Southern Conference, competitively for sure. To date this year in team competition between the two conference, taking in mens and womens soccer, volleyball and mens and womens basketball, the Southern Conference holds a 28-27-4 advantage.
Former Mercer athletics director Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at email@example.com.