Brad Ruzzo and Tony Economopoulos both said Mercer’s move to the Southern Conference will help with their recruiting efforts with the school’s soccer programs.
Bob Hoffman said he didn’t think he would see much of a difference with the men’s basketball program. And James DeFeo said his softball program already recruits nationally and recruiting in the conference isn’t that much different than recruiting in the A-Sun.
So the change in conferences was a mixed bag as far as recruiting goes. But for Bobby Lamb and the Mercer football program, the change is easy to see.
“It helped us a tremendous amount in the last class,” Lamb said. “We battled not only the Southern Conference opponents, but the academies, Army, Navy, Air Force, which we will always battle. But we jumped up and battled some teams in the MAC, battled some teams in the Sun Belt and won some battles in recruiting with those teams. With our academic reputation and what we have to offer, we can certainly get some upper-level kids here.”
Lamb’s program finished 10-2 in its first season while competing in the non-scholarship Pioneer League and then went 6-6 in year two, including a 1-6 showing in the Southern Conference. But the Bears competed with 38 scholarships, while their opponents had 63.
Mercer suffered five of its conference losses by single digits and will have 53 scholarship players this season.
“The Southern Conference really opened the door for us,” Lamb said. “People identify the Southern Conference as one of the top conferences in the FCS because it has been that way for years. So they say, ‘You’re in the Southern Conference. You’re in there with X, X, X and X.’
“So you have a time to put a stamp on it as opposed to, ‘We’re in the Pioneer League. This is what the Pioneer League is, and these are all the teams.’ You had to go through a dissertation so people knew what the Pioneer League was and what we were doing. Now, you just say, ‘Southern Conference,’ and the high school coaches understand where you are and the players understand where you are.”
Baseball head coach Craig Gibson agreed and pointed to the recent changes in the A-Sun, which last month lost Northern Kentucky to the Horizon League after just three years in the A-Sun. Northern Kentucky is still making the transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, while Mercer and East Tennessee State left the A-Sun last summer for the Southern Conference.
The Southern Conference also has lost many teams in recent years, including Georgia Southern, but there is a feeling that the conference is now on steady ground.
“We focus on Georgia, obviously, and Georgia kids are more familiar with Wofford and Samford than South Carolina Upstate and Northern Kentucky,” Gibson said. “We had our good time in the (A-Sun), but we made a good move to the Southern Conference. I think it helps with academic parity with the Furmans and the other schools, and the name recognition fits for us.”