I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.
A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.
“This might get interesting,” I thought.
So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.
That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.
“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”
In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.
Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.
And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.
Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:
“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”
Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.
For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.
This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.
We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.
I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.
OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.