In the time it took to play just one basketball game, Mercer University went from a small, private college in Georgia to a household name.
That boost came on the heels of the men’s basketball team’s improbable 78-71 victory over powerhouse Duke University on March 21, 2014, in last year’s NCAA tournament.
The university saw an immediate digital impact. For one, its website got about 170,000 visits that day, well up from the usual 2,000 hits on a good day, said Alejandra Sosa, Mercer’s director of undergraduate admissions.
“At one point we even had a phone call here saying, ‘I can’t access your website,’” Sosa said. “Because there were that many people trying to get on it. I mean, we were the No. 1 Google search that day.
“When you get that type of exposure, obviously, it helps the entire university.”
The athletics website also saw a spike in traffic. The site had far more viewers in that one day than it had in the previous six months, said Andy Stabell, director of sports media relations.
“Basically, it went through the roof,” he said. “Mercerbears.com almost collapsed.”
The momentum didn’t end there, but continued a process that had been in place since Athletics Director Jim Cole took his post in July 2010.
Besides helping bring football back to Mercer, Cole said the department had been improving facilities, building a fan base and ramping up social media efforts. It was all part of a five-year plan that, according to Cole, administrators hoped would include a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a win over a marquee program.
Duke fit the bill.
“We had stuff out there, admissions had stuff out there, development had stuff out there, and literally we were just waiting for something to bring it together, and Duke did it,” Cole said.
Mercer’s play in the upcoming Southern Conference tournament, which begins Friday, will determine whether it lands another spot in this year’s March Madness field.
Over the last two years, the athletics fund has also seen a marked increase, with the success of the football and basketball teams. Giving to the fund is up 310 percent over the last two years, said Brian Gerrity, director of the Mercer Athletic Foundation, and Cole noted a “12-fold” increase in corporate sponsorship. That includes a just-announced, multimillion-dollar deal with Five Star Automotive Group to rename the football and lacrosse stadium.
“It was the most successful fundraising year ever,” Gerrity said of the 2013-14 school year, which started with a 10-win return to football and included the big basketball victory.
APPLICATIONS, DEPOSITS UP
In admissions, the returns a year later have also been positive. While Sosa noted that the university’s application and enrollment figures were already trending up, that momentum has continued. With two months remaining before students have to make their final decision on May 1, applications are up 5 percent over last year, and deposit receipts are up 14 percent.
That’s compared to a 2014 incoming class that showed similar growth over 2013, something of a feat considering trends elsewhere in postsecondary education, according to Sosa.
“A lot of schools are down,” she said, based on conversations with her counterparts at other schools.
Sosa also said name recognition has become less of an obstacle in her admissions work. Where once Mercer was a virtual unknown, prospective students now often know all about the Bears’ basketball exploits.
“I’ve had students telling me out of California that came to visit, ... ‘Now my friends know who Mercer is, and they’re taking a look after the Duke win,’” she said. “Where before we were perhaps really well known here in the Southeast, but how well known were we in places like California?”
Even across Georgia, Mercer’s publicity stock went up after the victory.
Charles Massey’s wife, Denise, is a professor at Mercer’s Atlanta campus, and his son, Christopher, is a prospective student for the incoming freshman class. While Massey was already well aware of Mercer, of course, his colleagues at Crossroads Hospice in Atlanta were all talking about the Bears last March.
“It certainly raised the profile,” he said.
Financial giving for the university as a whole had also been in an “upward trajectory” -- even before the highlight victory. Alumni gifts and overall gifts have been increasing as the recent recession has gotten farther in the rearview mirror, according to John Patterson, senior vice president for university advancement.
Through January, Mercer had 5,277 total donors for this school year, an improvement of more than 300 over last year’s total through the same period. And the 2013-14 school year wasn’t a down year for giving, as the final total marked an increase of more than 1,000 donors since the 2009-10 school year.
While Patterson said it would be impossible to say how much of that increase was tied to the win over Duke, at least a few were clearly related, coming from unlikely sources -- such as Duke’s arch rival.
“The funny thing is, we actually did get gifts from North Carolina fans,” he said.
For all involved, having the Mercer name out there has brought benefits from across the country. Cole said his coaches no longer have to explain that Mercer is a Division I school or tell prospective athletes about the university for the first time, and now the goal is to keep it that way.
“That’s eventually going to wear off if we don’t keep succeeding, keeping our name out there.”
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.