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Scoop Exclusive: Inside a veteran coach's plan to build an NCAA D-II program from scratch

Bobby Lamb has been a head coach for 18 years and most recently served on staff at one of college football's brightest stars. He's giving up comfort for building a ground-up program.
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The most obvious question for the veteran coach entering his fifth decade in the collegiate game is nonetheless mandatory.

Why?

On football fields, especially throughout the South, Bobby Lamb has seen and done and coached in almost every environment.

Too, he’s one of the few coaches of the 2000s to launch from scratch an NCAA Division I — Football Championship Subdivision resident Mercer — program.

He’s also a first-time grandfather, the joyful obligation and privilege of which Lamb lets you know keeps a timer on this interview.

“My granddaughter is coming at 1,” he says, “and you’re not getting any of her time.”

Wouldn’t think of it.

But would think of all the questions incumbent upon going through that build-from-scratch process again — this time at Anderson University, which earlier this month named Lamb its inaugural head coach.

The program is set to begin play at the NCAA Division II level in 2024.

Most pressing: Why again undertake the arduous task of building a ground-up program in this hyper-competitive, ever-changing NCAA landscape?

“I think the challenge of starting a program is something I really enjoyed at Mercer,” said Lamb, who guided the Bears to a 10-win season in 2013 – the program's first year back on the gridiron in seven decades. “People think I'm crazy to do it again. But I enjoyed that process.”

In a wide-ranging interview with FootballScoop, Lamb details his plan for getting the Trojans' program online in the South Atlantic Conference to begin play in 2024; how he's a one-man staff for now but already is plotting recruiting – players and staff – to fill out the program; why the vision of Anderson President Dr. Evans P. Whitaker is part of Lamb's agreeing to construct things from ground-level; and why the Trojans' inaugural signing class of 2023 is going to be spending a lot of time on football's version of the driving range.

FOOTBALLSCOOP: I know that Anderson University has gotten a significant gift ($1 million) to help build the football program, but these also are changing times throughout college football with possible playoffs expansion, realignment and Name, Image and Likeness legislation all likely triggering top-down changes in the sport – and college athletics as a whole.

What, specifically, appealed to you about taking on this kind of job all over again?

BOBBY LAMB: I'll be honest with you, most NCAA Division II schools start football and other sports to fill beds. In our case at Anderson, our beds are full. We're already growing. Our president (Dr. Whitaker) wanted to start football to get our university name out there even more. He wants it to grow exponentially. We will probably be over 4,000 enrollment in two years [despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson grew its enrollment beyond 3,900 for the past year]. We will be the largest private school in the state of South Carolina.

“It's incredible what they've done at the university. And we want to start football to enhance the relationship with the community, to build more relationships with the community and connect more with alumni. I think it is a brand thing. He wants to brand Anderson University through the sport of football, which I think you can do very well.”

FS: What are those steps? How does that look for you as you again go through this process?


BL: “You've really got to educate the university and the area. They know football as a whole because Clemson is right next door [the two schools' campuses sit less than 20 miles apart]. It's about educating how do we use football, how do we use it as a platform to grow our university brand.

“My son (Tre Lamb) is now the offensive coordinator at Gardner-Webb. But for two years, I got to see all 30 of his high school games while I was building the program at Mercer, and now I will be able to spend some time at Gardner-Webb watching him coach. Another part of building the program is making it a family program. It really excites me to build a program. And I will be able to go to these games, see kids and see these other coaches while we're building this program.”

FS: You've said geography also factored heavily into this decision. You were on staff with Billy Napier at Louisiana, and he's widely seen as one of the fastest-rising coaches in perhaps all of college football. He's turned down multiple SEC jobs in the past two years. Why leave being on staff with a fellow Furman graduate and one of your former players?

BL: “I was at the University of Louisiana with Coach Billy Napier. I've got so many ties in this area, and I just started getting calls left and right when Anderson announced it was going to add football from people who said, 'We think you'd be a perfect fit.' When I came home a couple times the during summer last year, I actually already had a relationship with their A.D. (Bert Epting).

“We met for lunch/breakfast, we met, and he said, 'Hey, I'm getting calls about you. Here's what we're going to do.' I said, 'Yeah, I'd be interested.' I said, 'I'm down here at Louisiana with Coach Napier, and there might be some other opportunities that I might explore.' He said, 'Well, we're gonna do a full process, interviews, go through it all.'

“Obviously I went out there to work with Billy and I thought hopefully I'd continue to be a part of his staff once he takes that next step. He's done a great job there. Eventually, he's going to have a chance to move up and wherever that is, I don't know. He's got a great team coming back at Louisiana and a great job.

“What the decision really came down to for me, the location being in Anderson, S.C., the commitment they're making, proximity away from family – my parents are 59 miles away, my wife's parents are 37 miles away. I'm going to be able to coach college football, start a program, which is something I truly enjoy.

“I was a nine-year head coach at Furman, and I was a nine-year head coach at Mercer. I've been a head coach 18 years. I enjoyed every aspect of working with Billy. I was assistant head coach. I was not a head coach. I really like stepping back in that role of being head coach. And I've got a chance to build it from scratch in this particular model.”

FS: What is that model to build from scratch? Would you outline what that looks like?

BL: “We're actually a little bit ahead of where I was at Mercer when I started. For the first six months, I'm going to help raise money, build relationships in the community and on campus, hire part of our staff in January (2022). Our first recruiting class will be 2023. We'll have a bit of a skeleton staff through then. In January 2024, we'll have a full staff. And then our 2024 class and 2023 classes will make up our first team.

“We're going to have one year of recruiting, one year of practice only (for the '23 class). That's a negative, one year of practices with no game. But all the players will benefit by being able to use their redshirt-year. It's a long process. But it's a process that becomes really rewarding at the end once you play that first game.”

FS: What will that first full roster look like in 2024? Is 2024 a full season or a transition year?

BL: “We're going to go with about 75 young men the first year, and obviously with Division II you get 36 scholarships. The challenge is take the scholarships and tier them through all four years. In 2023 we want to bring in about 75, and the rest of the kids we want to sign the next year to be at about 125. That's where we want to be. We may not quote get there. We'll maintain that 125. There will be some attrition. There always is. We recruited 104 my first year at Mercer.

“We're going straight into the South Atlantic Conference. They're going to divide (the conference) into two halves and play a championship game at the end. We'll go right in with only two classes, but we'll get our feet wet early.

“Obviously, I have the blueprint for what I did at Mercer, and Mercer and Anderson actually are very similar schools. At Mercer, we started as a non-scholarship school. We recruited need-based kids and kids who got some academic money. That was a challenge. Then Year 3 they came in and said we want to go join the Southern Conference and here is your scholarships. But here, we've got money in our pocket to go out recruiting our first year. The key is for the University to be patient and for me to be patient. Obviously, we want to win. But that first year, we're going to be playing with two classes against teams with four classes. It's going to take some time to get up to speed.”

FS: How will you handle that practice year? And how will you go through the process of building your staff at Anderson?

BL: “The practice year, when I go to speak at places, I always say, 'It's like going to the practice range for an entire year, and never going to the first hole on the golf course.' That's what it's going to be for us.

“For my staff, I've got a plan. I will look into my past, look at former players, I'm lucky that I've got a coaching tree a mile long from Furman and Mercer, several former players at Furman and Mercer are now in coaching.

“Then there is the element of the D-II coaching aspect of it. I need experience there. It will be a mix and match of experienced guys, young guys and guys connected with me who know how I operate. When you put together a staff that shares a core belief with what the head coach has, you have a chance.”