Mercer University is leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference. The school's athletic teams will compete in the Southern Conference starting in the fall of 2014.
The Thursday afternoon announcement means Mercer will begin offering athletic scholarships for football.
Mercer is an NCAA Division I school, but it's hardly an athletic powerhouse on the level of the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech. Athletic director Jim Cole acknowledged as much when he described the Southern Conference site visit that lead to this moment.
"I believe that the Southern Conference was more impressed with Mercer than it was exactly its athletic department, and that's the way it should be," Cole said. "We're here to build young men and young women to compete in the game of life."
Still, Mercer administrators believe that college sports will help them market the university, particularly to young men. Football will be returning to the campus in the fall, after a seven decade absence.
Mercer president Bill Underwood said the move to the Southern Conference will also allow the school to revive historic rivalries dating back to the early 20th century.
"Samford University has been one of our closest rivals through the years, and it'll be great to renew that rivalry," Underwood said. "Our last football game in in 1941 was played against the [now Southern Conference member] University of Tennessee, Chattanooga."
Underwood also expressed sadness at leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference, of which Mercer is the sole remaining founding member. But he said this move is necessary for the program to grow.