Mercer is back in the football business for the first time since 1941. Reinhardt University has a new program that starts this season. Kennesaw State will play its first season in 2015.
Georgia State, Point (formerly Atlanta Christian College), LaGrange and Shorter also added programs in the last decade. That gives the state 17 college teams.
The coaches of the new teams say the real winners are high school players who no longer have to leave the state to play on the college level if they’re not offered scholarships by Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern or other state schools with longer traditions.
Mercer coach Bobby Lamb says Georgia needed the new programs to catch up with other states.
“With all the new startup schools, in my opinion the state of Georgia has been underpopulated for football teams, for universities playing football for a long, long time,” Lamb said recently. “We’re finally catching up.
“A lot of these kids on different levels have been going out of state. Now they can stay in state and play at any level they want to play: Division III, NAIA, Division II, FCS and FBS. That’s exciting for the kids and the coaches.”
This year’s newcomers will meet when Reinhardt, based in Waleska about 45 minutes north of Atlanta, plays Mercer in Macon on Saturday night.
Reinhardt coach Danny Cronic, a former longtime high school coach in Georgia, said he didn’t have many in-state college options when he chose to walk on the Georgia team in 1964.
“I walked on at Georgia and I wasn’t big enough or fast enough or strong enough but there wasn’t any place else to go in the state and play,” Cronic said.
“I think that these programs are long overdue. That doesn’t mean there won’t still be the interest in the two major schools in the state. But the kids want to play, and I like coaching them.”
Reinhardt, an NAIA school, will play in the Mid-South Conference.
Mercer, a Football Championship Subdivision team, is playing in the non-scholarship Pioneer League this year and has accepted an invitation to join the Southern Conference and add scholarships, beginning with the 2014 season. Georgia Southern is leaving the Southern Conference to move up to the Sun Belt Conference and Football Bowl Subdivision status.
“A lot of people like to say we’re taking Georgia Southern’s place in the Southern Conference,” Lamb said. “We’ve got a long way to go to take their place because of all the success they’ve had.”
Mercer played its first football game in 1892 against Georgia before dropping the sport in 1941.
“We’re undefeated since 1941,” Lamb said with a smile before adding “That’s about to change.”
Brian Bohannon, a former Georgia player and Georgia Tech assistant, is Kennesaw State’s first coach.
Bohannon coached under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech before making the bold move to head his own program.
“I had an unbelievable job where I was,” Bohannon said. “I worked with an unbelievable football coach in Paul Johnson. I had a really good job but I saw something special at Kennesaw State.”
The Owls will play as a FCS school. It has not yet joined a conference.
Bohannon said he has an easy sell as he promotes Kennesaw State, with an enrollment of 24,100, as the third-largest university in the state, behind Georgia and Georgia State.
Kennesaw State already has an on-campus stadium that was opened for soccer three years ago and will be retrofitted for football.
Bohannon said he’s not looking to compare his program with other new teams in the state.
“There are a lot of startup programs right now,” Bohannon said. “I’ve been asked several times, ‘How do you compare and contrast with these different programs?’ Truthfully, I’m not worried about competing with any other program. I’m worried about Kennesaw State and us being as good as we can be in what we do. We have a lot to sell.”
Bohannon, a former star at Griffin High School in the 1980s, said the state’s football landscape has changed dramatically in 30 years.
“It’s completely different,” he said. “With all these programs starting up, I think it’s great for Georgia high school football. At the end of the day, you want these kids to have a chance to go somewhere and be successful in life.”