After six months of one-way traffic out of the Southern Conference, three schools were added to the league Thursday.
The SoCon's Council of Presidents voted to offer invitations to East Tennessee State and Virginia Military Institute -- both former SoCon members -- as well as Mercer. ETSU and Mercer accepted the invitations Thursday and VMI will do so today when its board of visitors meets, bringing the league back up to 10 members starting in the 2014-15 academic year.
"We really see this as a golden opportunity to rebrand the conference and launch it in a very positive way," SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said in a phone interview from Hilton Head, S.C., where the league's spring meetings are taking place.
The return of ETSU will revive a mostly dormant rivalry with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The Mocs have some more minor rivals in the SoCon, but nothing like what they had with the Bucs.
UTC senior associate athletic director Laura Herron, who has worked in the athletic department for two decades, knows well what the UTC-ETSU rivalry means to both schools. She also participated in the member search as UTC's interim athletic director and senior woman administrator.
"When I went on the site visit, they gave a Top 10 list in their presentation of why they should be invited into the Southern Conference," Herron said. "Number one was, 'So Chattanooga has somebody to hate.'
"It's a wonderful rivalry, in-state rivalry, with a lot of great, heated contests in the past and, I think, in our future."
The Mocs have the head-to-head advantage in the three big sports, leading 20-18 in the football series, 42-32 in men's basketball and 48-21 in women's basketball.
Kim Reece is an ETSU graduate who has worked in academic support at numerous current or former SoCon schools, including UTC. Presently working for Appalachian State, Reece also has been a part of the movement that brought Bucs football back.
"It's like going back home again," she said, later having to pause as she got very emotional about Thursday's events. "It's where we should have been all along. Even though things are changing in the Southern Conference, I feel like with our sister school, Chattanooga, being there, that's our partner, our historic rival, our historic hate partner."
ETSU left the SoCon in 2005 after dropping its football program. While the Bucs will start competing in the league in 2014-15, its restarted football program won't be ready to play -- no coach has been hired -- until the 2016 season, which means the league will have an unbalanced schedule of seven games in 2014 and '15.
VMI is returning after leaving in 2003. The Keydets, presently in the Big South, will be able to play football right away, though they haven't had a winning season since 1981.
For Mercer football coach Bobby Lamb, Thursday marked the start of a return to the SoCon. The 1985 SoCon player of the year as a quarterback at Furman, Lamb went on to spend 29 years with the Paladins, the last nine as head coach. He resigned under pressure following the 2010 season.
Lamb was hired in 2011 to relaunch the Mercer program, which was disbanded in 1941. The Bears will play nonscholarship football in the Pioneer League this fall -- the rest of Mercer's sports will remain in the Atlantic Sun until July 2014 -- and then begin adding scholarships in 2014, when it begins SoCon play.
"It's a big step for Mercer and it's a big step for our program," said Lamb, adding that he hopes to have at least 30 scholarship players for the 2014 season..
The SoCon had been a 12-member league since 2008, when Samford joined. With the addition of ETSU, Mercer and VMI, the SoCon will have had 46 members in its 92-year history.
Starting with the College of Charleston in December, five schools have announced plans to leave the SoCon. Charleston officially will be gone at the end of June. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Davidson and Elon will depart following the 2013-14 academic year.
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MocsBeat.