Lamb, Mercer enjoyed surprisingly strong first year

mlough@macon.comDecember 23, 2013 

Mercer_Pre

WOODY MARSHALL/THE TELEGRAPHMercer's football team opened its season Aug. 31 with a victory over Reinhardt and finished the season with a 10-2 record.

WOODY MARSHALL — wmarshall@macon.com

Bobby Lamb has been around football pretty much his entire life.

From growing up in Commerce and watching his father Ray coach, to going to Furman and spending nearly 30 straight falls there as a player, graduate assistant coach, assistant coach and head coach.

He has played in and coached in an FCS national title game, been a conference player and coach of the year and helped send Paladins to the NFL.

Hundreds of games, a couple thousand players, Lamb's eyes have been witness to just about everything football has to offer.

And then came 2013, when, after almost two years of planning, practicing, hiring, planning some more, refilling staff positions, watching turf be installed and then a field house and stadium rise up from the ground, he would coach again on Saturdays.

Expectations for most startup programs or restarted programs meant that some of those Saturdays might be fairly long ones.

Campbell, the program Lamb looked at most while constructing Mercer's, went 1-10 in 2008, its first season since 1950.

Most other new Division I programs in the past decade hovered around .500.

And Lamb knew it.

"It's like I told people," said Lamb, who turns 51 on Christmas Eve. "Even if we'd have gone 6-6, that would have been pretty good your first year."

Mercer wasn't like most other new Division I programs in the first year back, finishing with a better-than-pretty-good 10-2 record.

Weeks after the season ended and up to his chin in recruiting, Lamb still isn't sure how what happened actually happened.

Some new programs go straight into a conference, others don't.

Mercer went to the Pioneer Football League, a fairly young non-scholarship collection of FCS programs

that were mostly taking a back seat to their basketball programs.

And Mercer fit, considering it was a "new" football program and the Bears had won 27 and 24 games, respectively, in men's basketball the previous two seasons.

Aiding Mercer in its first year was the competition level of the Pioneer Football League. It regularly was last or next to last in ratings of the 14 FCS conferences, battling the Southwestern Athletic Conference to stay out of the cellar.

The Pioneer League didn't have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs until 2013, and no team had ever earned an at-large bid. Just getting top-25 votes was good news for conference teams, who haven't had a ranked Pioneer League colleague since the end of the 2010 season (Jacksonville).

Mercer naturally constructed as favorable a non-conference schedule as possible: NAIA Reinhardt, in its first season of football; NAIA Warner, in its first season of football; Division III Berry, in its first season of football; and Division III Carnegie-Mellon, making the trip from Pittsburgh in the middle of the season.

Mercer's gathering of freshmen and redshirt freshmen played better than the other gatherings of freshmen and redshirt freshmen, and then it outdid most of the teams with juniors and seniors.

And that was to Lamb's happy surprise.

"Probably what happened different more than anything is we won," he said. "And I don't know how, but we won games."

There has been a recent barrage of new Division I programs, so Lamb had a nice list of coaches to call and consult, ranging from Old Dominion, which went 9-2 in 2009 against a strong schedule and is headed for Conference USA in FBS play in 2014, to Campbell, a former A-Sun rival in all sports that left for the Big South Conference in everything but the new-in-2008 football program.

"Every startup program, you look back on what they did," Lamb said. "Of course, Old Dominion started up, they went 9-2. So, it's just totally different, every situation is different."

So how did Mercer go 10-2?

"I don't really know the answer to that question," said Lamb, who came to Mercer with a 67-40 record as coach.

"I just know the things that I took from a lot of different coaches to try to put together a program that started up, and obviously we did something right."

One aid was having a field house ready in fairly short order, open in September of 2012, just after Mercer's full season of practice began. That gave the Bears a home with a locker room, office, weight room, training and rehab facilities and meeting rooms, as well as a separate orthopedic clinic.

"Coastal Carolina, it took them ... seven years to get their field house," Lamb said. "Campbell had their field house done, but once they got there, their stadium did not get completed until this year. The visitors' side was all they had the first five years."

Coastal Carolina's first year was 2003, and the Chanticleers really did it right on the field despite slow progress in some aspects of the program.

The stadium of then-6,408 seats was done just in time for Coastal Carolina's 21-14 debut win over Division II Newberry, thanks to a 97-yard drive that ended with the game-winning touchdown with seven seconds left and ended up with a goal post on the ground as a casualty.

The Chanticleers won three Big South championships before suffering their first losing season, 5-6 in 2009 followed two years later by their only other losing season, also 5-6. They beat then-No. 1 James Madison in their third season.

The stadium has been expanded three times and currently seats a little more than 9,200.

The Chanticleers averaged 7,500 fans in 2013, which ended in the FCS quarterfinals against top-ranked North Dakota State.

Campbell, just 130 miles from Coastal Carolina, between Fayetteville and Raleigh, has had only one winning season.

Both, like Mercer, went straight into a conference in the first season.

"I felt like, going in, that was going to make it difficult for us because we're thrown into a conference," Lamb said. "However, like I said, we had a great year. Our coaches did an outstanding job, our players did a super job of winning 10 games."

Lamb and his staff know to enjoy looking back, when they can, at the first season and cherish it.

"It's still a little bit surreal," he said. "You look back on it. As we know, time moves pretty fast, and it happened so quick. We just enjoyed the ride, and the ride just continued. To win 10 games is pretty special in your first year."

Life the second year, Lamb and his staff know, could bear few resemblances to the first. Life changed three months before the kickoff against Reinhardt when Mercer decided to join the Southern Conference.

Putting the season's success in some context while looking ahead isn't hard for a veteran like Lamb. Mercer moves into a better football conference -- although the Southern and A-Sun are pretty even in most other sports -- and will face better teams with bigger, stronger and faster players than anything the Pioneer League had to offer.

And Mercer will do it with fewer than three dozen scholarships in 2014.

"I will say this, things are gonna change," Lamb said with a knowing chuckle. "I'll go ahead and get it out there right now.

"We've definitely got our work cut out for us. We've got to have a great offseason; we've got to get a great spring practice and move on into our summer months ready to roll."

And hope for a carryover from 2013.

"I think our guys are going to be up for the challenge. I think we have enough confidence on this team," Lamb said.

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