It’s been a while since Mercer University has played collegiate football.
A little over 68 years ago the Bears played their last game, a 40-13 loss to Chattanooga, to end the 1941 season with a 3-6 record under first-year coach Bobby Hooks.
It was a well attended event by Mercer's standards. The stands were packed as 3,988 fans unknowingly witnessed the last Mercer game in Macon, Ga.
Then came the war. The demands of World War II resulted in the immediate suspension of football at Mercer on January 7, 1941, but efforts were made in following years to restart the tradition. However, money was an issue. The 1941 football budget was approximately $50,000, a large sum by even today’s standards. It still remains an issue today.
There has been quiet talk over the years of Mercer restarting the football program. Rumors and whisperings of crashing helmets and shoulder pads during the fall seemed to be just that, rumors. However, the rejuvenation of football may be closer than expected with third-year University President William Underwood at the helm.
Underwood’s vision for Mercer University Athletics in the future involves more than just football.
“I think athletics can provide a valuable learning experience for the young men and women that participate, and I think that they can learn valuable lessons about competition, time management, teamwork, and perseverance in the context of a rigorous liberal arts education,” said Underwood.
He went on to add, “I think athletics done properly is about education. Our student athletes are real students and at other universities you can’t really say that. Athletics can be a very valuable outreach for Mercer University."
With that vision in mind, President Underwood appointed a task force to study the feasibility of bringing football back to Mercer in the coming years.
Still, the facts about when, where, and how much are muddled, but the president is well aware of the positives that come along with football.
“When you start to talk about recruiting outside the state of Georgia and the southeast (U.S.), you talk about raising the profile of the university," Underwood added. "Athletics can do just that, raise the profile of the university.”
He keenly brought up the example of a university that has recently transformed itself through athletics, noting, “Ten years ago, no one heard of Gonzaga University. Today, because of what their basketball program has accomplished, their university’s profile is now much more marketable.”
In recent years, Mercer Athletics has certainly raised the profile of certain sports.
Volleyball, women’s soccer, and both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have had outstanding seasons this academic year, finishing the season with winning records and competing for the conference championship in their respective sports.
In fact, two of Mercer’s most dominating sports of today, softball and men’s golf have extremely good chances of capturing an Atlantic Sun title this year. Upset wins over Southern California, Alabama, and Auburn have certainly reenergized the Mercer community.
“I’d like us to take advantage of our niché, as the only private school in Georgia that competes in Division I athletics,” added President Underwood.
Surrounded by much larger, public universities such as Georgia Southern, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State, Mercer finds itself in an opportunity of sorts.
In fact, to a large extent, Mercer is the only game in town right now. The Macon Music’s departure in early 2008 left Macon and middle Georgia without a professional sports team.
To a large extent, the university capitalized on the opportunity during basketball season, setting several attendance records throughout the year.
Taking advantage of the niché will most likely require winning and a lot of it. But the man who sits courtside for many of the basketball games has had this in the works from his first day on campus.
Early in his administration, key coaches were hired to lead Mercer’s athletic teams at a school that is just as competitive in the classroom as it is on the field.
Bob Hoffman and Janell Jones have reshaped the face of both basketball programs over the past year, slowly changing both squads into winners.
Now, if you bring up the topic of basketball to President Underwood, he’ll most likely talk about the big wins against Jacksonville and Belmont in February.
He knows the team and results better than most sportswriters and for good reason, he comes to so many different games. Just last week, he was on the front row at Sikes Field to watch the softball team sweep Kennesaw State.
Ask him about football and he’ll first point to the paintings in his office. Depicted to his left is a colorful mural of a scrum of players in a 1892 contest between Mercer and Georgia Tech. The Bears won 12-6, but the game held significance because the Bears beat Tech in the first collegiate football game.
Coming from Baylor University, a Big 12 school that competes in one of the toughest conferences in the NCAA, President Underwood experienced first hand the rigors, advantages, and disadvantages that come with a high-profile athletic program.
If Mercer were to add football, they would most likely follow the models of fellow universities in the southeast that have added the sport in recent years.
Georgia State’s football program is in its second year of building under former Green Bay Packer star Bill Curry and will begin playing in 2010.
Campbell and Jacksonville recently launched their own programs, competing in the Division I Championship Subdivision’s Pioneer Conference.
If Mercer were to add football today in the current alignment of conferences, a move into the Pioneer Conference for the sports would be most likely.
It may be a few years until football arrives in Macon, but that doesn’t mean that Mercer isn’t a 'sports' school.
Look around, the Bears are winning on the scoreboard most of the time and if you look hard enough, you’ll find President Underwood somewhere nearby cheering on the university as well.