They’re the Division I football team you’ve never heard of. The Mercer University Bears are days away from their first game in seven decades. This midsize school in Macon, Georgia discontinued football when all the young men left for World War II. Mercer isn’t the only school that’s decided to resume or start up a football program. A record nine new teams are joining the NCAA in fall 2013. What’s behind the boom? It’s about more than money.
As head coach Bobby Lamb toured the new stadium Mercer built for him ahead of the Bears’ August 31 season opener, he made no promises to deliver those big college football dollars.
“We’re going to be really lucky if we break even here,” Lamb said. “Certainly, most schools are doing this to attract male students.”
According to the latest research from the American Council on Education, women outnumbered men on college campuses by more than 7 percent during the 2011-12 academic year. Men are still more likely than women to be serving in the military, serving time behind bars, or doing jobs that don’t require a degree.
“Gender balance is something, I think, that all institutions of higher education value very much because of the different perspective that people of different genders and ethnicities bring to a discussion,” said Joe Lang, spokesperson for Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Pacific cut their football program in 1991 to save money. In 2009, their student body was only 36 percent male. In 2010, they brought football back, and voila, “the gap decreased to 58 percent women, 42 percent men,” Lang said.
These aren’t men who just wanted to go to a school with tailgating. Most of them are actually on the football team. A hundred new guys make a difference at a small liberal arts school.
Mercer, on the other hand, is bigger. Plus, they’re Division I, which will mean football scholarships when Mercer hops to the Southern Conference next year. Students, staff and the surrounding community are all pretty hyped to have big time college football coming to town.
But with all the new programs around the country, are there really enough good players to go around?
Defensive end Hank Avery transferred to Mercer from the Air Force Academy.
“[At Air Force] we played against Notre Dame and Michigan, and when it comes to that level everybody’s a little bit faster, and everybody’s a little bit bigger,” Avery said. “But here [at Mercer], our ability is the same, our character is the same, we’re probably just maybe an inch or too shorter.”
And they don’t count height in enrollment figures.