Football was the final frontier for Mercer athletics.
The 8,600-student school in Macon, Ga., played its first game in the 1890s, but shut down its program after the 1941 season. It was revived 72 years later.
The Bears close out their fifth year since reinstatement Saturdayat Bryant-Denny Stadium against No. 1-ranked Alabama. When the revival was announced in 2010, no one saw this coming.
“Our vision wasn’t in five years we’ll be playing Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country,” said Jim Cole, Mercer’s athletics director. “We had a press conference to announce it and we didn’t have a helmet.”
Ray Goff, the former Georgia head coach, loaned the school a white practice helmet that Mercer embossed for the announcement. He also pointed Mercer in the direction of BobbyLamb, a coach who had taken Furman to four NCAA Division I-AA playoff appearances in nine years, and taken the Paladins to the national championship game as a quarterback.
“Really what made it attractive to me is I’m from the state of Georgia, have a lot of ties in the state,” Lamb said. “My dad was a legendary high school coach in Georgia who is retired now. My brother is one of the top high school coaches in the state.
“It was a chance to start up a program, and I jumped on board.”
Cole and the school’s president, William D. Underwood, rallied support to build 10,200-seat Five Star Stadium and a field house.
“Being in the South, football’s not a hard sell,” Cole said. “Everybody was excited. We had five or six really key boosters, business people in the Macon community, who really stepped up.”
After its first season back, Mercer joined the Southern Conference, playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. The Bears played Georgia Tech in Atlanta last year, losing 35-10, in their first step up against major competition. In September, they gave Auburn a bit of a scare in a 24-10 loss.
Playing Alabama and Auburn in the same year was a strategic risk for the young program. Mercer needed to do something to avoid being completely overshadowed by Georgia, Georgia Tech and other state programs.
“I used to be a representative in the state legislature,” Cole said, “and I always liken it to running for governor: You’re like fifth and the No. 1 and No. 2 guys are getting all the press; you need to do something different. Playing Auburn and Alabama tells everyone we’re not scared to play.”
The players enter this game with confidence gained by playing well at Auburn.
“If we had not played that game we’d have no idea what we’re about to walk into,” Lamb said. “Now we have an idea.”
Mercer’s fledgling program wins no matter the outcome.
“We played some big games before 1941, but I don’t know if anybody remembers them,” Cole said. “It’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. The No. 1 team in the country. ’Nuff said.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.
Mercer at No. 1 Alabama
When: 11 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 18
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Records: Alabama 10-0, Mercer 5-5
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 95.3 FM, 102.9 FM