Bobby Lamb was realistically hoping for five or six wins this season, the Mercer Bears' first since 1941. Instead, Mercer set an NCAA record for a start-up football program with 10 wins.
"It was unbelievable," said Lamb, who was introduced as the Bears' coach on Jan. 20, 2011.
Little was expected of the Bears in their one and only season in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, before joining the Southern Conference next fall. The league's coaches picked Mercer to finish 11th in the 12-team PFL.
Instead, Lamb's squad finished alone in third with a 6-2 mark in league play, and was in the hunt for the PFL's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs until the very end.
"We got on a roll, and we beat some people we weren't supposed to beat," said Lamb, the former star Furman quarterback and Paladins head coach. "These kids just kept believing and next thing you know, we were winning game No. 10."
The Bears' schedule featured several games against non-Division I opponents, so it wasn't a murderer's row they went through. At the same time, Mercer hadn't played a down of football since Nov. 27, 1941 (a 40-13 loss to the Chattanooga Moccasins).
The season began with a dramatic finish. Kicker Josh Shutter booted two field goals -- the last coming with three seconds left -- in the final 3:17 to lift the Bears to a 40-37 home win over fellow startup program Reinhardt. It was a thrilling debut in front of an overflow crowd of 12,172.
Mercer's season ended on Nov. 23, with a 41-14 rout of Stetson, in front of a crowd of 12,027. The Bears' average attendance was 9,379, which ranked No. 31 in the FCS and would have ranked third -- behind The Citadel (13,115) and UTC (9,922) -- among returning SoCon schools.
SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said he was very impressed both by the Bears' play and their support.
"They obviously exceeded all expectations," Iamarino said. "The enthusiasm and the interest in the fan base there in the Macon area was outstanding. They had terrific crowds and I think they've done a terrific job of building the foundation, and I think they're fans will enjoy the new rivalries within the Southern Conference."
Mercer started every game this season with 19 freshmen and three sophomores, Lamb said. More than any team he's been involved with, the veteran coach said, the Bears grew and developed more week to week and game to game.
"To go from where we were at the beginning to where we were at the end, that was pretty phenomenal," he said. "You really could see the team grow up."
The 2013 season was more than Lamb could have ever asked for, he said.
"We squeezed every ounce of energy that we could out of this year," he said.
Lamb said Mercer will play next season with a total of 30 scholarships. That number will gradually increase until it reaches the FCS-maximum of 63 in 2016. That scholarship deficit will put the Bears at a disadvantage in the SoCon next season and in 2015.
But 2014 was an educational season for Lamb's young team, one that should pay dividends in 2014 as the Bears begin SoCon play with some confidence and momentum. Before then, the Bears have some weight-room work to do.
"I think the biggest thing right now, other than going out and recruiting your first scholarship class, is our current team getting in the weight room and developing from a size, strength and speed standpoint," Lamb said. "That will be imperative. And we're on the road recruiting right now, and we've got to recruit Southern Conference-level players.
Also joining the SoCon (rejoining, actually) next season will be VMI, which went 2-10 (1-4 Big South). East Tennessee State will join the league in football in 2016.
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268.