HILTON HEAD, S.C. – East Tennessee State University, Mercer University and the Virginia Military Institute have been extended invitations to join the Southern Conference beginning July 1, 2014, SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino announced from the league’s spring meetings Thursday.
ETSU and Mercer have accepted the invitations to join the conference next year, while VMI is expected to formally ratify joining the league Friday when its Board of Visitors meets.
ETSU and Mercer currently compete in the Atlantic Sun Conference, while VMI is in the Big South Conference. ETSU and VMI are former SoCon members. VMI departed the league in 2003, while ETSU’s final season in the conference was 2004-05.
“The addition of these three institutions will solidify the Southern Conference and ensure our position as a vibrant league with a bright future,” Iamarino said. “We are delighted to invite three quality institutions, two of which are returning to a home they previously enjoyed for many years.
“Our membership is excited about rekindling old rivalries and establishing new ones. Most importantly, we've been able to grow while not extending our geographic footprint to an extreme extent.”
Founded in 1911 as East Tennessee State Normal School, ETSU, located in Johnson City, Tenn., claims an enrollment of more than 15,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. The school, which later became East Tennessee State Teachers College and eventually achieved university status in 1963, boasts 11 colleges and schools at its main campus, located in the northeastern tip of the state, bordered by Virginia and North Carolina.
ETSU was a member of the SoCon from 1978-2005 and won the Commissioner’s Cup during the 1982-83 academic year. The Buccaneers sponsor 17 sports and will restart the football program, which was dropped in 2003, in time for the 2015 season. A member of the Atlantic Sun since 2005, ETSU flourished in the league, winning the men’s all-sports race each year from 2005-12, the women’s all-sports trophy in 2006-07 and the combined all-sports race each year from 2006-12.
The Bucs have won 33 men’s regular-season and tournament titles and 19 women’s championships in their time in the A-Sun thus far, including a remarkable current run of seven straight men’s tennis tournament titles. ETSU’s baseball team recently won the A-Sun Baseball Championship and will represent the league in an NCAA regional this weekend.
ETSU also enjoyed a successful run in the SoCon, notably winning 13 regular-season and tournament titles in men’s basketball.
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.
VMI, founded in 1839 in Lexington, Va., on the site of what was once one of three arsenals in the state of Virginia, is a four-year undergraduate college awarding bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees. VMI is the nation's first state-supported military college. Today, with a mission to prepare educated, honorable and steadfast leaders, VMI enrolls nearly 1,600 cadets.
As a member of the SoCon from 1924-2003, VMI won several league championships. The Keydets won five gridiron titles in a 12-year span in the 1950s and 1960s and seven overall. VMI also won multiple men’s basketball regular-season and tournament titles and a baseball regular-season division title in 1988. The Keydets also produced 31 indoor and outdoor track championships, five cross country championships and 14 regular-season and tournament wrestling championships. VMI has continued to wrestle with the SoCon as an associate member since leaving for the Big South in other sports in 2003 and hosted this year’s championship.
VMI's intercollegiate athletic history dates back to 1866 with the formation of a baseball team, but the first organized sport came in 1891, when cadet Walter H. Taylor served as captain and coach of the first football team. Famous VMI athletic alumni include General George Marshall, a football player from the class of 1901 who served as chief of staff in World War II and, as Secretary of State, was awarded the Nobel Prize for the Marshall Plan that re-built war-torn Europe; Jimmy Leech, class of 1921, who starred on VMI's undefeated 1920 squad and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame; and Bobby Ross, class of 1959, who distinguished himself in the college and professional coaching ranks and led Georgia Tech to a national championship in 1990 and the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1995.
Today, VMI fields 18 varsity sports.
Founded in 1921, the Southern Conference has been on the forefront of innovation and originality in developing creative solutions to address issues facing intercollegiate athletics. From establishing the first conference basketball tournament (1921), to tackling the issue of freshman eligibility (1922), to developing women’s championships (1984) to becoming the first conference to install the 3-point goal in basketball (1980), the Southern Conference has been a pioneer.
The SoCon’s membership for the 2014-15 academic year will be as follows: The Citadel, East Tennessee State, Furman, Mercer, UNCG, Samford, Chattanooga, VMI, Western Carolina and Wofford.
“Our core members are committed to each other and the Southern Conference,” Iamarino said. “We look forward to welcoming East Tennessee State, Mercer and VMI to the SoCon.”