The walls used to be covered with pictures, collages and the other assorted trappings of being in a job for 21 years.
But they started coming down a few weeks ago, and as Bobby Pope entered his final weekend as Mercer’s athletics director, the white walls were absent of all that is orange and black.
Wednesday evening, Pope was no longer the resident of that office, exiting the University Center into retirement.
Pope was reassigned in early January by Mercer president Bill Underwood to a position as the Mercer Athletic Foundation’s first full-time executive director after Underwood tabbed Jim Cole as athletics director. Pope’s new title also included that of special assistant to the president.
But in April, Pope decided it was time to move on. He told Underwood and the staff in May, and the countdown had begun.
“Like I said, it’s a little bittersweet,” he said. “Been here this long, 21 years, seen ‘em come and go.”
And now Pope has gone.
His final day was Wednesday, and he was the guest of honor at a late-afternoon farewell social in the Presidents Room at the University Center, put on by the school’s advancement office, where Pope worked before taking over as athletics director in 1989.
Upwards of about 150 friends, staff, colleagues, former co-workers and Mercer boosters attended the event, which grew very emotional as Pope struggled to thank the familiar faces, many of whom were choked up, as well.
“I was overwhelmed by all of it, honestly,” Pope said. “It was an emotional night for me. I’ve got some special friends in Macon, this community and town, and Mercer.”
Underwood presented Pope with a large framed picture of the school, and head baseball coach Craig Gibson gave Pope a picture of the entire athletics department taken on the baseball field.
“I was very honored that they let me present the picture to him,” Gibson said. “Like I told our guys, I always challenge our guys about ‘what’s your legacy going to be?’ When I think of Bobby Pope’s legacy, I think of a man of high character and integrity, someone who loves Mercer.
“He’s a great friend and great supporter.”
Representative Jim Marshall couldn’t attend, but an employee from his office read a “Congressional Record” proclamation from Marshall praising Pope’s career, and the Mercer Athletic Foundation gave Pope a lifetime membership and announced it had established an endowment in Pope’s name.
Wednesday was the final time he walked past the offices of Sybil Blalock and Myra Cameron as athletics director after doing so for nearly half of his tenure.
Blalock, who was a standout basketball player at Mercer and later a women’s assistant coach, is the senior associate athletics director for academics and senior women’s administrator. And Cameron has been at Mercer for almost 13 years, covering a variety of positions before assuming her current role as athletics coordinator and administrative eligibility coordinator, as well as serving as Pope’s right hand.
Wednesday was a rough day for the trio.
“It was emotional for us,” Cameron said. “We all moved over there together to the University Center. It was emotional.
“I think me and him and Sybil and Craig and (trainer) Rob Murphy were the only ones who had moved from Porter Gym who are still there. We continued trying to stay in our routine (Wednesday).”
Pope takes comfort in knowing that Blalock and Cameron are staying, since, in his mind, they are invaluable.
“You get right down to it, Myra and Sybil are the people, they make the operation run,” he said. “They could do without me, they can do without every coach. You can’t do it without Sybil and Myra. They’re the most valuable players here.
“Myra’s my favorite four-letter word. I get in trouble, I holler, ‘Myra!’ ”
Pope departs an athletics department that has mixed results as far as success, and one that it is now in transition with a president who has changed the culture of athletics at Mercer by raising athletics’ priority. Pope knows there has been discussions about his stewardship, as with all athletics directors, about the interest in sports expressed by former president Kirby Godsey as well as about finances and budgets within the department.
“Prioritization,” Pope said. “People say Godsey was not an athletics guy, and that may be true. I was not a hard-driving guy, but he would always keep in mind whatever I took to him. It may take a year, it may take two years to do it. The soccer field, we had to have stands and lights, (and) he got those in. We had to have lights on the baseball field, he got those in. This building right here (University Center) is the crown jewel of the whole athletic facilities.”
There have been facilities upgrades, most notably the construction of the University Center, a 200,000 square foot do-it-all facility that Pope wouldn’t trade for any in the conference.
The UC was a little underbuilt, and Mercer has had a crunch for office space from the start. As the department increases coaching staffs up to normal Division I standards and adds sports, things get even more crammed.
“When we started building this facility, they said, ‘first and foremost, you’ll outgrow the building before you know it,’” Pope said of warnings from officials at other schools with new facilities that Mercer visited. “And we did that immediately.”
The baseball facility has one of the best playing surfaces in the country, a new softball complex was built, and the soccer field was redone with more practice fields for soccer and lacrosse, Mercer’s newest sport.
And Pope notes that Mercer’s student-athletes as a group have always had at least a 3.0 grade point average.
“You always want more wins and losses,” he said. “But we hang our hat, rightfully so, on the academic success we’ve had. I credit Sybil for much of that because she’s the one that rides herd on ‘em. That’s a point of pride.
“We’re better academically than we are athletically, and you want to balance that. There aren’t enough banners hanging out there, but I think there are enough banners in society hanging for us everywhere.”
Pope can’t answer what coaches no longer at Mercer that he misses the most, although he does mention former head men’s basketball coach Mark Slonaker as well as former women’s head coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener.
But Pope became emotional during the sitdown as he started to mention Gibson. After all, Gibson has been at Mercer almost as long as Pope. Gibson has been there 23 years overall as a player, graduate assistant, assistant coach and head coach.
“Craig’s a good one,” Pope said. “He really is.”
Pope is going out with a few things to smile about.
Mercer’s baseball team won the A-Sun championship and earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament where it was a respectable 1-2, losing 5-3 to Atlanta Regional winner Alabama in an elimination game. And Mercer did itself well in hosting the A-Sun basketball tournaments, with the men reaching the tournament final.
And in his final full week, Pope hired another head women’s basketball coach, Susie Gardner, who owns perhaps the most impressive résumé of anybody Pope has brought in.
He’s well-versed in hiring women’s basketball coaches.
“Somebody asked me how many coaches have I gone through since I’ve been here, in the 21 years, and what sport had I hired the most for,” he said. “I think it’s women’s basketball. Ed Nixon, I inherited. Then I got Lea Henry, got Billy Holmes, Sharon for a year, Sybil on an interim basis, Brenda (Welch-Nichols), Janell (Jones) and now Susie. There’s not a sport we’ve hired that many coaches in.”
For all of the issues, criticism, praise, arguments and disagreements Pope has faced, there still are occasions that make it all worthwhile.
The latest was a call last week from Kenny Brown, who was the A-Sun men’s basketball player of the year for Mercer in 1992-93.
“He said, ‘I just want to thank you for one thing. You made me get my degree,’ ” Pope said. “And I did. He was the last Prop 48 we ever took, and he graduated in four years, and won a state championship in Florida.
“He’s about (ninth) on our scoring list. Scored about 1,400 points in three years. He was a player, and a good kid.”
And that’s what Pope takes with him.
“It’s never been about wins and losses,” he said. “It’s about relationships and people. Sure, we would have loved to have won more, but I really enjoy seeing what people leave here become.
“That’s the reward for me.”