MACON, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) - In the ever-changing landscape of college athletics, there's always a chance a school could switch conferences.
But it was still a surprise to some Thursday when one of the Atlantic Sun's charter members announced it was heading elsewhere.
"This afternoon, we formally accepted an invitation to join the Southern Conference, effective July 1, 2014," Dr. William Underwood told the crowd at a called news conference.
After football members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern announced they were leaving the Southern Conference, the conference invited Mercer, East Tennessee State and Virginia Military Institute to join.
Mercer and ETSU both have new football stadiums under construction.
"Those are two places where we think the fan bases are going to be really supportive of bringing football back," says Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino.
Mercer will join the SoCon in 2014, but the Bears' football program, which returns to the field this year for the first time since 1941, will remain in the non-scholarship Pioneer League for 2013 before making the switch over to the SoCon.
"We're still going to be in a building process," says head football coach Bobby Lamb. "But we're excited."
Underwood says the football program will have a fast turnaround.
"They're going to have to ramp up quickly," he says. "The Southern Conference will have a higher level of competition."
Competition for all the sports, plus the rekindling of some old rivalries, like Furman, Samford and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
"At least when you write that article, it won't say 0-0 record," says athletic director Jim Cole. "It'll say, 'The all-time series record here is 12-12-1,' because there is a history there, and that means a lot."
The conference move means you could see Mercer's football team playing in "money games" against big schools in the near future, like schools from the SEC and ACC.
Again, all athletic programs other than football will remain in the A-Sun until July of next year.
A release from the SoCon talks about Mercer in detail:
Founded by Baptists in 1833 and based in Macon, Ga., Mercer is an independent university that remains grounded in a tradition that embraces freedom of the mind and spirit, cherishes the equal worth of every individual, and commits to serving the needs of humankind. With more than 8,300 students enrolled in 12 schools and colleges on campuses in Macon, Atlanta and Savannah, Mercer is consistently ranked among the nation's leading institutions by such publications as U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review.
The last remaining charter member of the A-Sun, Mercer has enjoyed great success in the league since its inception in 1978. This year alone, the Bears won the men's basketball and baseball regular-season conference titles, with the basketball team topping Tennessee in the first round of the NIT and the baseball team earning an at-large NCAA Regional berth for this weekend. In its A-Sun history, Mercer has won 15 men's titles and four women's titles, while both its men's and women's program won the league's all-academic trophies in 1992-93 and 1993-94.
The Bears will be adding women's track and field and resurrecting football – which last played a game in 1941 – for the 2013-14 academic year, with the football team playing in the non-scholarship Pioneer League before making the move to scholarship play within the SoCon. Those additions will bring Mercer's number of sponsored sports to 18.