RICHARDSON: A proven way forward

October 27, 2013 

As the new consolidated government of Macon-Bibb County and the city of Warner Robins get set to install new leadership, there are lessons that could be learned by examining another local institution: Mercer University.

Mercer has been around since 1833 and is just 10 years younger than the city of Macon, but there are recent lessons that begin with one word: Leadership.

Kirby Godsey looked into his crystal ball while president of Mercer and realized the old Mercer could not survive if it remained the old Mercer. Twenty-first century students want more than the old Mercer could provide, so he set out to build a new Mercer, and I’m not just talking about buildings, but academic offerings as well.

Godsey handed the reins of leadership to Bill Underwood in 2006 and the transformation continued. I don’t often write about sports, but I think in Mercer’s case, it is a textbook example of building a leadership team. While Mercer has a slew of fine sports programs, for the sake of this discussion, I’m talking about men’s and women’s basketball and football.

During my first interview with Underwood after he arrived, the subject of football came up. While he didn’t openly endorse the resurrection of a program that had been dormant since 1941, he did lead me through the process of what it would take to bring football to campus. He had obviously thought a lot about it.

But first things first. Athletics Director Bobby Pope and Underwood hired Bob Hoffman to lead the basketball program in 2008. Mercer announced how serious its basketball program would become by beating the likes of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

In 2010 the pace accelerated. In early January, Underwood brought Mercer alum Jim Cole in as athletics director as Pope transitioned to head up the Mercer Athletic Foundation. Later that month, Bobby Lamb was introduced as the coach who would breathe life into the long-dead football program. By June, Susie Gardner was named the women’s basketball coach.

Who would have expected the men’s and women’s basketball teams to be so successful so quickly? Hoffman had 99 wins in five years, and Gardner, in three years, brought a team that was one of the youngest in D-1 basketball to its first 20-win season since the 1990s.

As far as football, even Underwood had his Vince Dooley moment. Dooley was famous for downplaying his UGA team’s chances for success even if the opponent was Clarke Middle School. Underwood said the Bears would be lucky to win three games. The Bears went into Saturday’s game with a 6-1 record, outscoring their opponents 277 to 141.

Leading the university -- coaching and teaching its students -- are all vital roles. That leadership has to have an eye on the present created by a vision for the future. And underneath lies the mission of helping build the foundational elements of the next generation of leader.

I know a little bit about basketball and a lot about football. I know well-coached teams when I see them. To be able to mold a group of freshmen into a 6-1 college level football team can only be explained by coaching. Mercer hired the right guy. They hired the right guy and the right woman for its basketball teams, too.

Can’t rest. Next up, the Southern Conference.

The architect of all of this is Underwood’s vision. He didn’t blindly go where the school’s trustees dared not venture. He sold his plan, raised money for his plan (is there a section of the new stadium without somebody’s name on it?), and is now able to say to internal and external naysayers, “I told you so” -- and he did it by attracting talented leaders committed to his vision who wanted to be on his team.

Mercer has, in creating a campus atmosphere to woo even more students, allowed the community to join in. The Mercer campus is one of the few places where the entire community comes together, bonded by the same experience. While we all say, “Go Bears!” we’re getting to know each other better in the process.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet @crichard1020.

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