Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will make one last run through the Southern Conference football schedule this season, before departing for the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Sun Belt Conference. They will take with them a collective five Football Championship Subdivision national championships won as SoCon members — GSU won four as an independent.
The Mercer Bears, about to kick off their inaugural season of football, will fill one of those spots in the SoCon’s roster next season. Replacing their stature, however, is something entirely different, Mercer coach Bobby Lamb acknowledged.
“We got a long way to go take their place, with all the success they’ve had,” said Lamb, who also coached SoCon member Furman. “We’re taking a giant step into the Southern Conference in 2014.”
Though he played and coached in the league, Lamb said that’s an advantage with limitations. He also believes that despite the defections — Elon is ending its stay in the SoCon for the Colonial Athleic Association — the conference will remain rugged.
“I know the hotels we stay in, I know where the buses park, I know where the visiting locker rooms are,” he said. “So we’re ahead of the game in that department. But when you step between the white lines, you’ve got to come up with the personnel and talent to compete in that league. That league will be just fine, even though it lost a few powerhouses. It will develop an identity and there are still really good football teams in that league.”
Mercer, restarting football after a 62-year timeout, will play in the Pioneer League this season before moving to the SoCon the following year. The Bears sold out their home opener against Reinhardt — about to embark on its inaugural season — in 27 minutes for their new 10,000-seat stadium.
Brian Bohannon was tapped to be the first coach at Kennesaw State University. KSU, a member of the Atlantic Sun in other sports, is a year away from playing at the FCS level. A longtime assistant under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, Bohannon too is learning about how to start a startup program.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “I get excited talking about it, because I believe in what’s there. I believe in what we’re selling.”
The Owls already have a stadium, the 8,300-seat Fifth Third Bank Stadium that opened three years ago as home to Owls soccer and lacrosse. In the meantime, they will sign their first signing class in 2014, begin practice that fall, sign a second class in 2015 and begin play later that year.
“We’re going to be FCS, and we are going to be the best at who are,” Bohannon declared earlier this summer. “We’re trying to be Kennesaw State. We’re not trying to be anybody else. We want to be the best FCS program we can be.”
KSU is following a similar timeline to Mercer. Lamb was hired in 2011, given two years to put a program together before taking the field.
“When I first got there, there was no football, no helmet, no locker room, no dressing room, nowhere to play football,” he said.
Now, there’s a Jumbotron and a 42,000 square foot facility in one end zone of Mercer’s stadium. Out of his original complement of 104 players, Lamb had 78 this summer and expected 33 to come in when camp opened last week.
The Bears will have 30 scholarships for this season, before adding more for the ensuing two campaigns to get the limit of 63.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” Lamb said, “but a process we’re eager to get into.”
As a first-year program, the Bears will have a serious deficit of experience, Lamb pointed out.
“They’ve got juniors, seniors and fifth-year seniors, and we’re going to have all freshmen. But we’re excited,” he said. “Our depth is something we’ve got to work on. We certainly need depth on both sides of the ball.”
Bohannon has filled out his staff, and the son of a former high school coach is tapping into his lengthy list of contacts to aid him in his first head-coaching job. He said he’s leaned on Johnson, under whom he worked for 17 years, and on former colleague Jeff Monken, the head coach at Georgia Southern.
“When you look back at my career, there have been so many people who have been influential in my life,” Bohannon said. “I’ve been on the football field my whole life. I started out on the football field since I was 8 years old."
Bohannon noted how the onset of football has ignited the fan base and campus. He also called football a way for the school, now with the third-largest enrollment among four-year schools in the University System of Georgia, to draw in even more people.
“I’ve just been blown away,” he said. “The support in the Cobb, Paulding, Cherokee county area has been unreal. It’s been talked about for a long time. I’ve had a chance to talk to the students. They’re excited. It’s a place that’s got more positive energy than any place I’ve been before. Everybody is united, and it’s finally here.
“Football is a front porch for what’s already a special place,” he said. “We’re going to open the doors for what’s at the university right now.”
Both coaches also pointed out that the number of college football teams springing up in the state will be a benefit to Georgia high school football players. Berry College also is getting into the football game, joining Reinhardt and Mercer.
“The state of Georgia has been underpopulated with universities playing football for a long, long time, and we’re finally catching up,” said Lamb, whose dad Ray Lamb won nearly 250 games as a high school coach in Georgia and brother Hal is the coach at Calhoun. “We’re keeping up where these young men can stay at home, and they can play at all levels of football.”
Bohannon’s dad coached at Griffin, leading the Bears to two state championship appearances. He also welcomes the sudden proliferation of college football programs in the state and thinks it will be a plus for the prep ranks.
“It’s great for Georgia high school football,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want these kids to have a chance to go somewhere and be successful in life. I think you want to give these kids a chance to win the day in the classroom, win the day on the field and win the day off the field. And the more opportunities they have to do that in the state, that’s great for Georgia high school football.”