Mercer readies to complete move to Southern Conference

mlough@macon.comJune 28, 2014 

There will be no sounding of a bell.

Campuses won’t be transformed.

There are no ribbons to cut.

Nobody involved will wake up any different, other than a day older.

But when the second hand passes 12 and it’s a second after midnight Tuesday, a major change takes place. At that moment, the A-Sun loses two programs, while the Big South loses one. The Southern Conference subtracts four but replaces three of them.

The lineups change with the Sun Belt, Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10, as well.

And Mercer is in the middle of it.

It was on May 30, 2013, that the open secret of Mercer and East Tennessee State leaving the A-Sun for the Southern Conference in about 13 months came to light. A few days later, it was announced that VMI would return to the Southern Conference, as well.

Those 13 months and a day run out Tuesday, the beginning of the fiscal year.

At the same time, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State become members of the FBS and Sun Belt Conference. The Colonial Athletic Association welcomes Elon, and the Atlantic 10 opens its door for Davidson.

The Big South loses VMI, and the A-Sun is now without Mercer -- a founding member of the conference -- and ETSU.

The end and beginning of eras will be marked, but that process has been underway for some time.

“It’s not like we’re all of a sudden introducing ourselves or anything,” Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said. “It’s felt like they’ve been part of the league, but now it’s more official.”

Meetings all year have involved the future connections, not past ones.

“We’ve not had nearly as much conversation or contact with the departing schools, and I’m sure that’s probably been the case with Mercer and the A-Sun,” Iamarino said. “It’s not as abrupt as maybe people on the outside might think.”

A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart has lived in Macon since the early 1990s when the conference office moved here. And he and his wife, who teaches at Stratford, have faced questions galore for the past year.

While the office doesn’t have a large number of employees, it has people who have made Macon home for the job. And with Mercer, a charter conference member, leaving, people wonder.

“That part of the end of the relationship isn’t as traumatic as it could’ve been, but simply, when you have people that have been part of your community and then they’re going to go join another community, that’s OK,” Gumbart said. “We wish them the best.”

As for Mercer -- as well as all the others involved in realignment -- there’s no big shindig to mark the move. Cosmetics and administrative differences are the main tasks.

All the schools moving have conference logos to replace, on fields, courts, uniforms and other assorted equipment. Mercer has to flip the logo on the football field so it’s facing the camera side for ESPN3 broadcasts, which will begin this fall.

“There never was one point where there was just a switch,” Mercer athletics director Jim Cole said. “There haven’t been any major (issues). A lot of little things.”

How the A-Sun and Southern Conference do academic awards has forced Cole to go through coaches’ contracts and make adjustments for financial rewards based on academics. Mercer coaches have had plenty to do, thanks to almost completely new schedules for the first time since, well, 1978 when the A-Sun -- then the Trans America Athletic Conference -- was born.

Despite the geographic proximity and other similarities, there’s little history with the seven remaining programs in the Southern Conference.

There is some familiarity with one program, Samford, which went from the A-Sun to the Ohio Valley Conference and Southern Conference within a decade. But Mercer and Samford haven’t met much in anything since Samford left the A-Sun in the early 2000s.

The schedule changing means the coaching staffs have to rework the travel folders on their computers and phones. Teams now have to deal with new hotels and restaurants while heading to cities they’ve barely visited. And figuring out how to get to Western Carolina, which is about 25 winding miles from the closest interest, will be a task.

The A-Sun’s progressive philosophy regarding ESPN3 has Mercer ahead of its new conference mates. In fact, a group of Southern Conference member officials visited Mercer last week along with some ESPN3 people to see where the conference wants to get.

Along those lines, Cole said Mercer has added some staff -- on the graduate assistant level -- to help with the increase in ESPN3 broadcasts (starting this fall with football). Cole said there has been no change in the number of full-time staff members of the athletics department. He didn’t expect that to change and said using contract and freelance workers for jobs otherwise considered full time is a strong consideration. Cole said the department’s budget rose about eight percent, mostly from football going to a scholarship status.

Iamarino said there were only a few items mentioned to the newcomers before invitations were offered. East Tennessee State has a huge issue and a huge old building. The Mountain States Health Alliance Center (aka “mini-dome”) hasn’t hosted football since the school dropped the sport a little more than a decade ago because of yearly seven-figure losses. But basketball has still been played there.

With football gone, parts of the building became old quickly, and it wasn’t a quality basketball facility. Moving forwar, ETSU will use Johnson City’s Freedom Hall Civic Center.

“We gave them the clear indication that we thought that if they could arrange to play basketball in Freedom Hall ... that we would prefer to see games played there rather than the mini-dome,” Iamarino said. “They have followed up with that and are clearing dates with the city ...”

Freedom Hall isn’t young, but it’s a clear upgrade. When ETSU decided it could afford to play football again, the Southern Conference noticed. But a new football home was mandatory for consideration.

“If they had said they were going to play in the mini-dome, that would have been difficult for us to accept,” Iamarino said. “I think, from the past experience, it was just not a good experience.”

No location has been announced nor designs released, 14 months after announcing the sport’s reinstatement and a year after Carl Torbush was hired as the head coach. And the Bucs are supposed to kick off in about 15 months.

It’s the complete opposite of Mercer’s situation. The Bears had everything in place by their first kickoff last year with a fieldhouse and stadium that drew rave reviews. ETSU will have to play at least two seasons, 2015 as an independent in transition and then 2016 in the conference, at Science Hill’s high school stadium a little more than a mile away from campus. Iamarino hopes the Bucs are in their own football facility for 2017.

The mini-dome is undergoing extensive renovations to turn it into a football and basketall practice facility.

Nevertheless, the countdown continues. The Southern Conference already has added the new schools to its website for the 2014-15 standings, but it hasn’t yet dropped or added logos on the opening web page.

The transition is the equivalent of flipping a switch -- Iamarino joked he won’t be on any private jet visiting the new members -- but it’s a complex switch. It’s an odd experience to compete in a conference as a lame duck.

“I called Ted the other day,” Cole said. “And I know (Mercer president Bill Underwood) emailed him and told him that they were very gracious, first-class in how they treated us in the transition period.”

Mercer might not compete in the A-Sun anymore, but the two will remain linked forever.

“There’s always something about, ‘Hey, that group of Mercer seniors that played that basketball game, they’re forever going to be A-Sun student-athletes,’ ” Gumbart said of Mercer’s upset of Duke in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March. “I couldn’t have been prouder. It had nothing to do with whether it’s their first year or their last year. They were great representatives of their basketball team, their university, their conference and all that it means to be a student-athlete.

“So that’s a win.”

On the move

On Tuesday, several schools throughout the Southeast will be changing conferences:

A-Sun to Southern Conference: Mercer and East Tennessee State

Big South to Southern Conference: Virginia Military Institute

Southern Conference to Sun Belt: Georgia Southern and Appalachian State

Southern Conference to Colonial Athletic Association: Elon

Southern Conference to Atlantic 10: Davidson

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