Jim Cole thought back to his senior year in high school.
He was a talented pitcher at Curtis Baptist in Augusta on a bad team. He was 0-14 and struck out 21 batters in one game, a 9-1 loss.
Barry Myers, then Mercer’s head baseball coach, saw Cole pitching in a summer league and said there was room for him at Mercer.
“That was all I needed to hear,” Cole said. “I’d never seen the campus.”
It’s a markedly different and larger campus that will be Cole’s work home 20 years later as Mercer’s new athletics director.
The move, which goes into effect July 1, was made official Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in the Presidents Dining Room inside the University Center in front of nearly 100 staff, faculty, trustees, state legislators, A-Sun officials and friends of the school.
That memory of Myers’ offer led to a bit of emotion for the 38-year-old Cole.
“That was a watershed moment in my life,” said Cole, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke of his family. “I look there at (son) Lawson and (daughter) Caroline ...
“I wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for Mercer. I wouldn’t have (wife) Gaylyn. I wouldn’t have had a political career, business, I wouldn’t have lived in Forsyth. That’s because of one person, took a chance on me. I’ve never forgotten that. Never.”
Cole and longtime athletics director Bobby Pope will, for the most part, swap jobs. Pope moves to fill Cole’s spot as executive director of the Mercer Athletic Foundation, created in 2007 by Mercer president Bill Underwood.
Pope will become the first full-timer in that position as special assistant to the president.
Cole joined the athletics department as senior associate athletics director for external affairs in 2008, while serving as a state representative from Forsyth. He was also the executive director of the MAF, a part-time position.
“The Mercer Athletic Foundation has matured to the point where it now requires full-time leadership,” Underwood said. “After my discussion with Bobby about the qualities we’d be looking for in searching for a full-time director for the Foundation, it became obvious to me that that person is already here at Mercer University.”
Diane Owens, president of the foundation, got a call Tuesday from Underwood with news of the plan, and she was still thrilled a day later.
“I’m just so excited, I can’t stand it,” Owens said. “Bobby’s going to be great at this job.”
As soon as she was done talking to Underwood on Tuesday, she called Pope.
“I said, ‘Yes, you’re mine,’ ” said Owens, who has known Pope since 1975, when she was a member of Mercer’s women’s basketball team — known then as the “Teddy Bears” — and he was broadcasting Mercer events.
Owens is enthused that the director position was turned into a full-time one and that somebody who has been around Mercer and Macon for so long filled it. She said the foundation has grown from about 55 members to more than 200 and raised more than $1 million.
“Bobby knows everybody,” she said. “What we’re looking forward to is his contacts, his efforts. He’s done the Big Dance, the auction, all by himself. We look forward to having a lot of people helping him.”
The past several days have been whirlwind days — and nights — for Cole, Pope and Underwood.
Cole said on New Year’s Eve that he had been offered and had accepted the secretary of state’s job, vacated by Karen Handel to run for governor. He immediately had second thoughts, which only grew as he spent more time around his family during the holidays.
Cole called Gov. Sonny Perdue on Sunday to turn down the secretary of state job. Later that night, Cole was driving on Mercer’s campus and said he started feeling better.
While on campus, he contacted Underwood — “just as a friend ... I wasn’t seeking out any offer” — about his decisions and Mercer, nothing specific.
“It was,” Cole said, “a tumultuous day.”
But Sunday night, Cole said, was the first night since the process started that he slept well.
Underwood, who has been aggressive in efforts to improve athletics at Mercer, saw opportunities and met with Pope on Monday to discuss them. Then Underwood talked to Cole. By the end of the day, the future of Mercer athletics began changing, and the athletics department staff was told Tuesday.
“When Bill first approached me, there was a little trepidation, sure,” Pope said afterward. “But I don’t have to deal with coaches any more after July 1. I’m saying that facetiously. Somewhat facetiously.
“I’ve enjoyed the athletic directorship, there’s no question about it. But I was in sales before this, so I’ve come full circle.”
Pope has been connected to Mercer for more than 40 years, starting in 1964 when he served as the school’s basketball play-by-play announcer while working part-time at WMAZ. He joined the athletics program in 1980 as the school’s part-time sports information director and eventually moved to Mercer’s advancement office, as well.
He was named athletics director in 1989 and continued in sports information for three years.
“I was the only SID/AD around,” Pope said. “Oh yeah.”
The Thomaston native and Georgia College graduate served as president of the A-Sun for two years in the late 1990s and has been on several conference committees.
Pope, a member of the Macon Touchdown Club who has also served on a variety of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame committees, has also been on the Mayor’s Recreation Master Plan Committee and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Authority.
With Pope as athletics director, Mercer moved from the ancient Porter Gym to the University Center, built a new softball stadium, made upgrades at baseball’s Claude Smith Field as well as the soccer field, and added lacrosse, to start in the fall.
Having played on Claude Smith back in the early 1990s, Cole is well aware of the need to stay competitive with facilities, which means funding, which means he will be spending a lot of time with his predecessor.
“I’ve got a lot to learn from Bobby,” said Cole, whose parents were on hand for the announcement. “There are some things I bring to the table. But listen, Bobby Pope is the athletic director. Bobby knows a lot, and I’m looking forward to learning.”
Born: Feb. 19, 1971
High school: Curtis Baptist, Augusta
College: Mercer (Bachelor’s, 1993; Master’s, 1997)
Family: Wife Gaylyn, son Lawson (6), daughter Caroline (8), parents Malcolm and Ruth
Career: Professional baseball player, Milwaukee system, 1993-96; graduate assistant pitching coach, Mercer, 1997-98; pitching coach, Madison (Wisc.) Black Wolves, Northern League, summer, 1997; pitching coach, Mercer, 1998; Founder/owner, Culligan Water, 1998-2006; State representative, 2004-present; Senior associate athletics director for external affairs, Mercer, 2008-present.
Born: April 28, 1945
High school: R.E. Lee Institute, Thomaston
College: Georgia College (Bachelor’s, 1970)
Family: Wife Carol, daughter Kristen
Career: Sports reporter, WMAZ radio and TV, 1964-70; Sports Director, WMAZ, 1970-77; Salesman, WMAZ, 1977-85; part-time Sports Information Director, Mercer, 1980-85; advancement office and full-time Sports Information Director, 1985-89; Sports information director and Athletics Director, Mercer, 1989-92; Athletics director, Mercer, 1989-present.