Mercer’s move a positive step with some negative

dshirley@macon.comMay 30, 2013 

Usually when I write a column, I have a pretty strong opinion -- right or wrong -- on the subject at hand.

This one is a little different for me.

I can see the positives and negatives of both sides of the issue, and that makes it tough.

Thursday had a celebratory feel around the Mercer campus as the school announced its athletics teams will leave the A-Sun for the Southern Conference for the 2014-15 school year. While there is reason to celebrate, it’s also easy see the negative side of leaving the A-Sun.

First, the folks at the A-Sun office, stationed right here in Macon, are first class. They’re good at their job, and they’re even better people. So any negative feelings people have about the A-Sun shouldn’t be directed at them, and any excitement Mercer fans have about the move should be tempered at least a little bit by the thought of not being affiliated with the A-Sun office after this upcoming school year.

The A-Sun has improved tremendously the past few years, and Ted Gumbart and his leadership group have done a terrific job. Specifically, the A-Sun has become a national player in men’s basketball and baseball, and both sports have enjoyed an increased spotlight in recent years.

Plus, the conference has been Mercer’s home since 1978-79, and those kinds of ties don’t just go away without some trepidation. Mercer was the lone remaining original member of the A-Sun, which started as the Trans American Athletic Conference in 1978-79, so that’s a tough change to make.

The loss of Mercer and East Tennessee State, which also will make the move, will drop the A-Sun to eight schools: Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, North Florida, Northern Kentucky, Stetson and USC Upstate. The conference likely will have to react and add some schools to fill in the losses, but Gumbart has been proactive throughout the realignment process that has swept through the college sports world, and there’s no doubt he will make the right moves to strengthen the conference.

That said, there are plenty of positives of Mercer’s move.

First and foremost is a switch to scholarship football for the Bears. Non-scholarship football just wasn’t going to be appealing for the long haul for the Bears or the Middle Georgia sports fans, but now that only will last this upcoming season. After that, Bobby Lamb and his staff will add scholarships for the program, and that’s a terrific development as the young program grows after its initial season. There has been plenty of excitement about the return of football to Mercer, and there should be. Lamb is a good coach, and adding scholarships and landing in a solid conference will make the program even more viable and attractive for fans.

As a whole, the Southern Conference will take a hit with the loss of College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Davidson and Elon in the upcoming years, but the conference’s remaining members should be attractive to Mercer fans. Losing Georgia Southern and Appalachian State specifically hurts the Southern Conference’s football brand, but there is plenty to like about the Bears’ new conference.

Along with Mercer, ETSU and Virginia Military Institute, which also made the move Thursday, the conference will be made up of The Citadel, Furman, UNC Greensboro, Samford, Chattanooga, Western Carolina and Wofford. That’s a pretty good group, athletically, academically and geographically, and Mercer should fit right in with its new schools.

Mercer has done of a lot of positive things in recent years athletically. It’s not the same department it was just five years ago, and the growth on the campus with victories and facilities is easy to see.

Craig Gibson’s baseball program took another big step forward this week by receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after winning its first A-Sun regular-season title, while Bob Hoffman’s basketball program won its first A-Sun regular-season title just a couple of months ago. Those two programs should be able to shine in the Southern Conference while the school’s other programs continue to make steps in the right direction.

That overall improvement adds to the Bears’ excitement of Thursday’s announcement as does the Southern Conference’s long tradition of success.

The new home for Mercer looks pretty good, but the old one will remain solid, as well, as the school and A-Sun move in different directions.

Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or dshirley@macon.com

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