Mercer football head coach Bobby Lamb knew a move to the Southern Conference would be dramatic for the team he is still trying to build.
“We’re excited about the opportunity,” said Lamb, whose team will play its first game this fall after two seasons of preparatory work. “As I tell all my friends, we just stepped into a new tax bracket.”
In this case, the new “tax bracket” is a conference that is one of the oldest in the country. And it’s one that features scholarship football, something that wasn’t in the initial plans when Mercer decided to bring back football and compete in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
Moving day will take place July 1, 2014. That’s when Mercer, along with fellow A-Sun member East Tennessee State and Big South member Virginia Military Institute, will officially leave the A-Sun and join the Southern Conference.
A vote of conference presidents at the Southern Conference spring meetings Thursday in Hilton Head Island, S.C., resulted in invitations for the three schools. Mercer announced its acceptance Thursday in a news conference at the Homer and Ruth Drake Field House overlooking the football stadium.
“As this process started, I told our staff, ‘This process may or may not happen, but every day let’s just stay on task. Let’s try to get better academically and athletically so we can be in a position to be successful and be a part of the conversation,’ ” Mercer athletics director Jim Cole said.
The move is meaningful for coaches, administrators, fans and athletes alike, including Mercer’s incoming freshman class. To many, the Southern Conference carries bigger name recognition and prestige, even though it was an A-Sun team, Florida Gulf Coast, that came up with this year’s Cinderella run in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“It’s a big day for Mercer,” said Tyler Ward, an incoming freshman from Tattnall Square. “It’s what we wanted, and I’m excited to come in and compete. I’m glad it worked out. It’s going to be big for my family.”
With Mercer’s move, all of the founding members of the A-Sun, started in 1978 as the Trans America Athletic Conference, will have departed by the start of the 2014-15 academic year. Another founding A-Sun member, Samford, left in 2003 to join the Ohio Valley Conference before eventually joining the Southern Conference.
The A-Sun will have eight members once Mercer and East Tennessee State depart in 2014: Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, North Florida, Northern Kentucky, Stetson and USC Upstate. Mercer and East Tennessee State will each owe $200,000 in exit fees, but they also will earn — for one academic year — the extra NCAA basketball tournament revenue the A-Sun picked up thanks to Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet 16 run in March.
“I don’t think any conference or organization looks forward to losing any members, but this is an unprecedented time in the NCAA and conference realignment,” A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart said. “We understand the dynamics. We understand what role football plays. We certainly plan to adapt as we have through our 35-year history and continue to provide all the opportunities that our membership has grown accustomed to.”
The addition of Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI comes as the Southern Conference is set to lose several members. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are moving up to the FBS-level Sun Belt Conference for the 2014-15 academic year. The College of Charleston is headed to the Colonial Athletic Association this fall, and Elon is headed to the same conference in 2014-15. Davidson will join the Atlantic 10 in 2014-15.
Remaining in the Southern Conference will be Chattanooga, The Citadel, Furman, Samford, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina and Wofford.
Mercer will spend one more season in the A-Sun, while the football team will play its inaugural season this fall in the Pioneer League. The school’s men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, along with the sand volleyball team, will have to find a conference home as the Southern Conference currently does not offer those sports.
Telegraph writers Jonathan Heeter and Michael A. Lough contributed to this report.