Mercer has called the same conference (Trans America Athletic Conference/A-Sun) home since the late 1970s. But that all changed Tuesday.
The school’s move from the A-Sun to the Southern Conference became official as it made the jump, along with East Tennessee State. VMI also joined the Southern Conference, leaving the Big South.
“We’re proud and honored to formally join the Southern Conference, a league steeped in rich tradition of athletic and academic excellence,” Mercer athletics director Jim Cole said in a release. “We appreciate and value our long standing relationship with the Atlantic Sun Conference and look forward to an exciting new age of Mercer athletics.”
Mercer was the final remaining original member of the A-Sun, which began in 1978.
“They have been so good to us,” Cole said of the A-Sun. “It wasn’t anything that the A-Sun has done to us for us to make this move. There were just some attractive qualities about the Southern Conference. One being the football option. Two was a more geographic, compact region, and probably third, one thing that we really, really liked was the fact that a lot of schools are very similar in nature to us as far as their mission, their enrollment.”
The addition of the three schools lifts the Southern Conference to 10 members, along with The Citadel, Furman, UNC-Greensboro, Samford, Chattanooga, Western Carolina and Wofford. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State (Sun Belt), Davidson (Atlantic 10) and Elon (Colonial) officially left the conference Tuesday.
ETSU and VMI are former Southern Conference members. VMI left the conference in 2003, while ETSU left in 2005.
“Our membership has worked hard together to reach this momentous day,” Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino said in a release. “We begin a new era with our three new members and are focused on improving the conference.”
Mercer’s first Southern Conference contest is set for 6 p.m. on Sept. 6 as the Bears football team hosts Furman. Bobby Lamb’s program made its debut last year in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League and signed its first scholarship class in February.
“It’s been a year of firsts, and we’re almost going to have another year of firsts: our first Southern Conference game, our first Southern Conference road game,” Lamb said. “It’s kind of crazy how it’s happened and unfolded. From our standpoint, we went out and recruited our first scholarship class, and we signed 20 young men for that class. The great thing about it was we battled Furman, we battled Wofford, we battled Samford, we battled Chattanooga. So we’re battling the teams on the recruiting trail, and certainly we’re going to be battling them on the playing field.”
Bob Hoffman’s basketball program won its first A-Sun regular-season title this past season and lifted the Mercer athletics department’s profile with its win over Duke in the NCAA tournament. Hoffman said his coaches already have been scouting their new conference opponents, and he is excited about the Southern Conference tournament in Asheville, North Carolina.
“The part for me that should be tremendous is the neutral site tournament,” Hoffman said. “We’ve always had good fortune with neutral sites in all the jobs I’ve been in, and Asheville really embraces that tournament. I watched the finals, and they had a great crowd, so I’m looking forward to that venue at the end of the season where everybody comes together in one place. It should be a lot of fun where no one really has an advantage going into the tournament.”
Craig Gibson’s baseball program also has had plenty of success recently, winning the A-Sun regular season title in 2013 and earning multiple trips to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s very similar; it’s a great baseball league,” Gibson said, comparing the Southern Conference to the A-Sun. “You have some great programs with The Citadel, Samford University. Western Carolina has a great club. UNC-Greensboro is really competitive. So as far as baseball, it’s going to be very similar to what we’re leaving.”