Indiana University head baseball coach Jeff Mercer is just like the rest of us in a lot of ways.
He was born and raised in Indiana and indoctrinated at a young age on IU basketball. If you grew up in an IU family you either knew yourself or from your elders that former head coach Bob Knight was royalty. In some houses even right up there with God. No really. We’ll come back to that.
So you can imagine how Mercer, 33, felt when he learned earlier in the week that Knight would be making an appearance at Bart Kaufman Field for an IU baseball game.
Mercer’s first challenge was to keep it a secret.
He did his best, but this was big news, especially for an Indiana kid.
Knight had not made a public appearance on the IU campus since the school fired him in 2000 after 29 seasons and three national championships.
At the Mercer household, Knight was like a member of the family. And he was coming home. And there was just one person that the young Hoosier baseball coach had to share the news with.
“They told me I couldn’t tell anybody…and I did, I told one person. I told my dad,” Mercer told a group of reporters after Saturday’s baseball game against Penn State.
Mercer’s father (Jeff Sr.) was an assistant baseball coach at IU in 1988 and 1989 and also helped found the well known Indiana Bulls baseball organization that has since become a key part of the success of IU baseball.
The current Hoosier baseball coach isn’t old enough to have lived through Knight’s glory days. He hadn’t even turned two when the Hoosiers won their last national championship in 1987.
But Mercer didn’t have to personally experience Knight at his best because his dad did. And his grandfathers did.
Growing up in nearby Bargersville, Ind., Mercer’s family passed down their love of the IU basketball program to young Jeff. And they left no doubt where Knight stood in the family hierarchy —
“Because I grew up a half hour up the road, right? And in my grandparents’ house, there were two things on the wall. There was a crucifix and an autographed picture of Bobby Knight,” Mercer said.
With Knight’s status in the Mercer family firmly established, young Jeff gleaned more from stories and legends than from watching a since less impressive program more often than not fail to live up to the deity status on the family wall —
“I grew up watching the teams, when I was young, but mostly I grew up listening to my grandparents, my grandfathers and my dad, tell me stories about Indiana basketball. And the lore, and the history, and the intensity and the legacy that Coach Knight left here” Mercer said.
With the family significance, the IU significance, and it all playing out in his own back yard, it was too much for Mercer.
He couldn’t wait to tell his dad what was going to go down at Bart Kaufman Field. He couldn’t imagine that this larger-than-life figure from his childhood was going to make an appearance that has been discussed for nearly 20 years — at an IU baseball game.
A central part of the fabric of his family and the topic of so many cherished memories was coming home. And, well, it got to Mercer.
“And to have him come back to a baseball game, honestly, it brought tears to my eyes. The raw emotion is overwhelming. The standard that he set here, it’s beyond me,” Mercer said.
While Mercer has been a baseball guy for most of his life, his IU upbringing, and his family’s admiration of Coach Knight set him on a different course than most baseball players.
For just about every kid that develops a passion for baseball, the ultimate goal is to reach the big leagues. But seeing Knight up there on that wall, next to the crucifix, well, it influenced Mercer’s dreams. Hearing all of those stories and developing an appreciation for just how much passion IU and Coach Knight generated for his family set Mercer on a bit of a different course.
Major League Baseball is nice, but Mercer just wanted to be the IU baseball version of Coach Knight.
“You’ve got to understand, everybody wants to play in the big leagues,” Mercer said. “I wanted to coach at Indiana. That’s all I ever wanted. So to have Coach Knight come back today – to be the coach at Indiana and have Coach Knight come back for the first time – is more than anything in my wildest dreams I could’ve imagined. I’m so thankful, so appreciative that he was here today. It’s beyond me.”
The only thing better for Mercer would have been for his team to put on a good show for Coach Knight and get a win.
They did that.
And then they did it again as IU swept a double header over Penn State on Saturday afternoon.
The two wins put IU in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten — a familiar spot for Coach Knight and a great start for the first year coach.
Better find another spot on the wall for the up and coming baseball coach.
Right there next to that crucifix — and the family member that finally came home.
You can follow us on Twitter: @daily_hoosier
Find us on Facebook: thedailyhoosier
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”
Want to receive all of our content via one e-mail in your inbox every day? It’s free. Join our daily mailing list here.
Please consider supporting The Daily Hoosier by shopping on Amazon via this link to the Amazon home page or through the ad below.