After watching Mercer become the darling of the NCAA tournament two weeks ago with its win over Duke in the round of 64, it’s stunning to recap how far the university has come since Bill Underwood became the school’s president in 2006.
When Underwood took over, most of Mercer’s teams were in the lower half of the A-Sun standings. The brand new University Center was lucky to draw 1,000 fans for men’s basketball games, and even the mere mention of the word football in association with Mercer was sneered at by some in the community.
Basketball at Mercer were so mediocre that a curtain was used at one end of the University Center -- now known as Hawkins Arena -- to block off the space where rollaway seats are now filled on a regular basis.
The situation in 2006 mirrored that of the Macon sports scene in general at the time. Minor-league hockey had just folded for good, and Macon’s Arena Football League 2 team was preparing to fold just before that league went into the history books. And all of that came not too long after the Macon Braves bolted for Rome.
In other words, Macon was in the tank.
That’s what made that win over Duke so sweet. Macon, whose spectator sports had all been written off less than a decade earlier, finally got to see what victory on a big stage looks like. And Mercer got to see some more of the fruits of Underwood’s vision for the school, a vision that included bringing football back -- in a wildly successful way thus far -- and creating some economic development between campus and downtown.
Which brings us to Bob Hoffman, the head coach who orchestrated Mercer’s climb from basketball mediocrity to the most talked about team of the opening weekend of the tournament.
When coaches at smaller schools get into situations like what Hoffman and Mercer were in, there’s a strong push for coaches at those schools to move on to the bigger, better deal. Or, to borrow the cliche, strike while the iron’s hot.
Thursday’s USA Today provided a glimpse into the kind of money college basketball coaches make at certain levels, ranging from low-six figures for head coaches at low majors to more than $9 million annually for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
We don’t know how much Hoffman is making at Mercer. Because Mercer’s a private school, open records laws do not apply. Nor should they.
Soon after Mercer’s ouster from the tournament, Hoffman admitted he had talks with South Florida regarding the Bulls’ head coaching job. Had Hoffman and South Florida come to an agreement, Hoffman would have been running into some big money. All four of the American Athletic Conference’s NCAA tournament representatives, according to USA Today, had head coaches making more than $1 million per year, from Kevin Ollie’s $1.25 million (and surely rising, thanks to a Final Four trip) at Connecticut to Rick Pitino’s more than $4.5 million annually at Louisville.
Yet, as the coaching carousel continues to turn, Hoffman is still at Mercer.
Maybe he hasn’t received the exact offer he wanted yet.
Maybe he hasn’t received offers yet from programs where he could continue to openly affirm his faith.
Maybe he sees some opportunities for Mercer to do some more big things, even with a completely new starting lineup. Mercer is moving to the Southern Conference, and the level of basketball at the top of that conference in the past couple of years hasn’t quite risen to the level Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast brought to the A-Sun the past two seasons.
That’s not to say something won’t happen in the days and weeks ahead. The coaches’ convention that takes place at the Final Four is the scene of a lot of coaching deals. And CBSsports.com reported Thursday that Tulsa head coach Danny Manning was offered the Wake Forest job and was considering a move.
Should Manning head to Wake Forest, one would think Hoffman would be right in the mix for the Tulsa job, given his ties to the state of Oklahoma.
Then again, maybe he wants to continue riding the tide that is rising in Macon right now, a tide fueled by a university that has started to realize its potential in the past couple of years.
Such are the choices that coaches on the rise must face.
Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org