Just a few years ago, it seemed Mercer was as far away from the college basketball spotlight as a program could be.
Losing season after losing season led to a coaching change, and the Mercer administration brought in a coach named Bob Hoffman. There was plenty of research to be done to discover more about Hoffman because, truthfully, not many of us knew much about him when he was hired. He wasn’t a big name. He wasn’t an up-and-coming assistant coach whose name was on the tongues of athletics directors and fans around the country. And he didn’t have any ties to Mercer or the Southeast.
What Hoffman was, however, was exactly what Mercer needed. And it turns out he has been much more than any one could have expected, even the most positive Bears fan.
He is passionate about basketball. Watch him on the sideline of any of the Bears’ games, and that is easy to see.
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He truly cares about his players. Attend any senior day since he has taken over, and that genuine affection washes over the arena like waves.
And he is proud of what he has built at Mercer. Listen to any interview he gives about what he, his players and coaches and the Mercer administration have accomplished, and it’s a good bet there will be a crack in his voice at some point.
He should be proud, and the entire Mercer fan base should be. Mercer’s athletics department is different now than it was a few years ago. President Bill Underwood made it a point to improve athletics when he arrived on campus because he understood that athletics and academics can go hand-in-hand and he was aware that a terrific athletics brand can improve the brand of the overall university.
The support that wasn’t there from previous administrations for the athletics department, its leaders and the players and coaches is loud and clear from Underwood, and it’s easy to see the improvements throughout the department.
The baseball team is a yearly NCAA tournament contender, and Craig Gibson is a terrific coach and a program builder. The football team had a dynamic first season, and Bobby Lamb’s group will look to continue to grow as it moves forward. And there have been other successes for other teams as the athletics department prepares to change conferences from the A-Sun to the Southern Conference this summer.
But basketball has seen the biggest improvement in recent seasons (since my arrival at The Telegraph in 2006), and that begins with Hoffman and his strong-willed attitude.
Hoffman will fight for his program and his players, and that’s what fans want from their coaches. They need to see a desire to improve, a work ethic to get to the next level and an obsession to go beyond that to even the next level.
Mercer fans have gotten that from Hoffman. They saw it through the first three seasons -- all hovering around .500 -- as the program took its first few steps, and they definitely have seen it the past three seasons -- the best run in the program’s history that has produced giant steps in the right direction.
Even during that terrific stretch, there have been disappointments, most notably losing to Florida Gulf Coast at home in the A-Sun tournament the past two seasons. But even through those, Hoffman and the Bears continued to fight, push forward and strive for the ultimate goal. That’s what made March 9 so special.
Michael A. Lough last week called that day an exorcism, and that was right on point. The Bears rid themselves of the demons of their past and the demons wearing the blue, green and white of Florida Gulf Coast by winning the A-Sun tournament title. And they did it on the Eagles’ home court, which made it even sweeter. Last year the Bears had to watch the Eagles’ dynamic run to the Sweet 16 and think about what might have been.
So there the Bears were Sunday at Hawkins Arena finally enjoying the fruits of all their hard labor with CBS choosing Mercer as one of the programs to focus on during its announcement of the brackets. The Bears knew they were going to the NCAA tournament, so there was no “are they in or out” drama about Selection Sunday. But now they know who (Duke), when (Friday) and where (Raleigh, N.C.) they will be playing and begin preparing for the Blue Devils and the trip to the Tar Heel State that goes along with it.
It’s a tough task for sure. Duke is one of the nation’s most high-profile programs, for sure. And it amounts to a home game for the Blue Devils. But Mercer has overcome a lot in the past few years. Why not one more big hurdle?
On Sunday morning before heading out to Mass, my son, Matt, and I were watching television, and one of the anchors said, “Over the next few weeks, we’ll find out who can be this year’s FGCU.”
Matt and I looked at each other and in unison said, “Mercer.”
If we’re right, the Bears will grab an even larger part of the spotlight that years ago seemed so far away.
Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or firstname.lastname@example.org