A few years ago, I sat in a Telegraph office with several of Mercer’s leaders as they mapped out their plan for the return of football to the school.
At the time, that focused on a non-scholarship program, and there was no thought of moving forward with scholarships.
But somewhere along the line, something changed. The Southern Conference came calling.
And here we are. After hiring Bobby Lamb, going through a practice season and playing a season in the Pioneer Football League, the Bears are ready for their first game in the Southern Conference.
That is going to be a tough game, for sure, against Furman, which tied for the conference title last year, and it’s likely going to be a much different season than 2013, when Mercer rolled to a 10-2 record. It’s not that the Bears can’t compete in -- or win in -- the conference, but the conference is definitely more difficult than the Pioneer League, and there will be adjustments and growing pains.
Mercer will have to step up its game, and its program, to match that. That might take some time, but it will happen eventually.
How can we be sure? Well, just look at the success around the Mercer athletics department.
President Bill Underwood had a vision for that department because he realized what a strong athletics department can do for a school. If a school can build a strong athletics brand, it can help improve the brand for the entire university and the culture around a campus.
And that has happened in recent years for Mercer under Underwood’s leadership. The campus feels different now with all the positive energy surrounding the school’s teams and the students actually showing interest (that hasn’t always been the case).
The highlight of that growth, of course, was the win by Bob Hoffman’s men’s basketball team over Duke in the NCAA tournament in March. That program and Craig Gibson’s baseball program grew into annual conference title contenders in the A-Sun, and that likely will carry over into the Southern Conference.
There are other stories of success with the golf program and the soccer programs, among others, while the women’s basketball program continues to grow under Susie Gardner and likely can take another step forward this upcoming season in its new conference.
The first look at that conference comes Saturday with the Mercer football team as it makes its debut and plays the athletics department’s first Southern Conference contest. There should be a terrific crowd, including a solid contingent of Furman fans making the trip from Greenville, South Carolina, and it should be an exciting day on the Mercer campus.
There have been a lot of those recently, and many more are to come.
Contact Daniel Shirley at 744-4227 or firstname.lastname@example.org