President Bill Underwood has announced the Mercer Bears will leave the Atlantic Sun and join forces with the Southern Conference.
The move becomes effective July 1, 2014.
All sports will switch over with the exception of men's and women's lacrosse and women's sand volleyball.
The Southern Conference is the fifth oldest in the country and its founding chairman was Mercer alumnus Dr. S.V. Sanford, according to a news release from the school.
Among the early members of the conference were UGA, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida and Alabama.
Thursday's announcement came after months of speculation about the school's conference future.
Over the past few months, Georgia Southern -- followed by three other schools -- made an exodus from the "SoCon" making room to add the private university to the roster.
Mercer will join nine other schools throughout the southeast to form the SoCon, but the Bears will be the only school to represent the Peach State.
FULL MERCER NEWS RELEASE:
MACON, Ga. - President William D. Underwood today announced that Mercer University has accepted an invitation to join the Southern Conference, affiliating the institution with the nation's fifth-oldest NCAA Division I athletic association. Mercer's membership in the Southern Conference, whose Council of Presidents voted earlier today to issue the invitation, is effective July 1, 2014. The Executive Committee of Mercer's Board of Trustees voted unanimously to authorize the University's acceptance of the invitation.
"The past several years have been a tumultuous time in intercollegiate athletics. Conference realignment has affected traditional rivalries and disrupted the geographic integrity of conferences across the country. Mercer's affiliation with the Southern Conference will, however, restore historic rivalries and reduce travel burdens on our student-athletes," Underwood said. "We look forward to continued competition with our colleagues in the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2013-14. We have enjoyed close relationships with a number of outstanding academic institutions within the A-Sun that we anticipate will continue beyond our change in conference affiliation."
"We're honored to have Mercer become a member of the Southern Conference," said Commissioner John Iamarino "The combination of outstanding facilities, successful athletic programs and undeniable academic excellence makes Mercer a great fit for us. We're delighted they've accepted our invitation."
"In the University's quest to find the right balance between its academic mission and intercollegiate athletics, the Board of Trustees believes that the Southern Conference is the right fit for Mercer," said David Hudson, chairman of the board and an Augusta attorney. "It enhances competitive opportunities for our student-athletes in conjunction with institutions that share our primary goals of academic excellence."
Founded in 1921, the Southern Conference also voted today to admit East Tennessee State University, a fellow member of the A-Sun Conference, and Virginia Military Institute. ETSU was a member of the Southern Conference from 1979 to 2005, when the institution joined the A-Sun, and VMI was in the Southern Conference from 1924 to 2003, when it joined the Big South Conference. Beginning in 2014 the Southern Conference, in addition to Mercer, ETSU and VMI, will include The Citadel, Furman University, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Samford University, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Western Carolina University and Wofford College.
Mercer has a long history of competing against Southern Conference schools. Samford has been among Mercer's most frequent athletics opponents dating back to the early 20th century. Mercer's last football game in 1941 was played against Chattanooga, which was a frequent opponent. The Citadel, Furman, and Wofford were also regular football opponents of Mercer in the early decades of the 20th century.
The founding chairman of the Southern Conference was Mercer alumnus Dr. S.V. Sanford, then-president of the University of Georgia. Among the early members of the Southern Conference, in addition to Georgia, were Georgia Tech, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky and Wake Forest.
All Mercer sports with the exception of men's and women's lacrosse and women's sand volleyball, will compete in the Southern Conference. That includes football, which this fall will resume competition after at 72-year hiatus and play in the Pioneer Football League for 2013 only. Beginning in 2014, Mercer will award athletic scholarships in football to academically qualified student-athletes, as it does in other intercollegiate sports. Because the Southern Conference does not sponsor the sports, lacrosse and sand volleyball will seek to compete in a conference that does.
"Our coaches and student-athletes are looking forward to competing in the Southern Conference," said Mercer Director of Athletics Jim Cole. "There are some great rivalries that will be renewed and I know our fans will enjoy cheering on the Bears not only at home, but on the road in the Southern Conference as well. This is a good move for Mercer in general and for the athletics department in particular."