Head Coach Mark Slonaker
Mark Slonaker enters his 10th season at the helm of the Mercer men's basketball program just as energized and eager as any campaign during his 26 years as a coach, whether at the high school or collegiate level.
Just as he has in the past, the Rahway, N.J., native is looking to lead the Bears back after a disappointing 2005-06 season. The loss of James Odoms and future NFL tight end Wesley Duke, coupled with untimely injuries and the loss of projected starters complicated Slonaker's efforts to guide the team to its first-ever back-to-back Atlantic Sun Conference winning seasons.
In his nine seasons at Mercer, the former University of Georgia standout has revived the men's basketball program and brought the Bears back to prominence in the balanced, competitive Atlantic Sun Conference. When he came to Mercer in 1997, Slonaker inherited a team coming off of a 3-23 season in which they won just one game in conference play and finished last in the country in RPI.
Not only did Slonaker resurrect a program that many considered lifeless, he took it to new heights, culminating in the Bears first-ever A-Sun regular-season championship in 2003.
After earning All-America honors in high school, Slonaker left New Jersey for a scholarship at the University of Georgia in 1975.
Four years later, Slonaker had earned four varsity letters with the Bulldogs and led the team in assists as a sophomore. After being named team captain his senior year, he finished his collegiate career with 211 assists, which ranked fourth all-time in Georgia's history.
With his playing days behind him, Slonaker jumped right into coaching, serving as a student assistant coach at Georgia for the 1979-80 campaign.
Having a year of coaching experience under his belt, Slonaker set out on his first rebuilding project as he took over at The Lovett School in Atlanta. There he turned a perennial doormat into a successful program.
Following his three-year stint at Lovett, Slonaker rejoined the college ranks by taking an assistant coaching position at Georgia State, where he would remain for the next six seasons, including a stint as interim head coach during the 1984-85 season.
During his time at Georgia State, Slonaker was a key member of the staff that helped set the then-school record for most wins in a season. He was also responsible for signing the school's first all-conference performer as well as the school's all-time leading rebounder.
It was during the 1984-85 season that he took over as interim head coach three games into the season and oversaw a rocky transition with a young team as the Panthers won just one game the rest of the year, dropping seven games by 10 points or less.
Slonaker returned to his alma mater in 1989 as an assistant coach at Georgia under Hugh Durham, where he would spend the next six seasons.
One of the top assistant coaches in the Southeastern Conference, Slonaker helped guide the Bulldogs to their only SEC Championship in school history. It was also during this time that Georgia advanced to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in school history on top of two NIT appearances.
In 1992, Slonaker was responsible for one of the highest ranked recruiting classes and coached six players who eventually played in the NBA, led by Dominique Wilkins. Other standouts coached by Slonaker include Alec Kessler, Litterial Green, Charles Claxton, Shandon Anderson and Carlos Strong.
Wilkins went on to be named a member of the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1983, the high-flying 6-8 forward was named to seven All-NBA teams and nine consecutive All-Star squads. In 1986 he won the NBA scoring title with an average of 30.3 points per game. He is the Atlanta Hawks' all-time franchise leader in both scoring and steals and was elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Having six years of experience as a top assistant in the SEC, Slonaker moved on to his next challenge as the head coach at perennial power Pensacola Junior College in 1995. In his first season, he guided Pensacola to a 20-12 record and a spot in the state tournament. The next year, he improved on that with a 21-9 record.
Slonaker's opportunity for a return to Georgia came along as he took over at Mercer. It started with his first team that featured eight underclassmen and two junior college transfers. That young Bears team finished the 1997-98 season with a 5-21 record, losing nine games by 10 points or less. The team started to show some signs of the program turning around by going 5-8 at home.
The rebuilding project was getting on track as the Bears improved on Slonaker's first season by going 8-18 and 5-11 in conference play the next season. The youth movement that was instituted in his first season continued as the Bears had six underclassmen on the roster that saw a significant amount of playing time.
Once again, the Bears were in a lot of games, losing seven by 10 points or less, but played better away from home, picking up three wins, including an 81-75 win at Troy.
Slonaker's project gained momentum in his third season as the Bears finished with a 12-21 record and a 7-11 finish in the A-Sun.
To go along with the four-game improvement, as the eighth seed, the Bears made a Cinderella run through the conference tournament, knocking off Jacksonville in the opening round and then upsetting No.1 seed Troy State in the quarterfinals.
This was also the coming-out party for freshman Scott Emerson. Tabbed as the future of Mercer basketball, Emerson earned second team all-conference honors as a freshman.
With three years under his belt, Slonaker had Mercer poised to continue its resurgence. And in the 2000-01 opener, the Bears showed that Slonaker's hard work was paying dividends, knocking off SEC foe Auburn, 92-88, on the road. The Bears would go on to finish the year with a 13-15 record and held a 10-8 record in conference play, their first winning conference mark since 1992-93, snapping a streak of seven straight sub-.500 seasons.
On top of breaking that streak, Slonaker had two players earn all-conference honors. Emerson was named to the first team with Rodney Kirtz earning second-team honors.
With an experienced group returning that had tasted success the previous year, Slonaker had Mercer gunning for a title run in 2001-02. Instead of a run for the roses, it turned into a battle for survival.
The injury bug hit the Bears early in the season, taking away three of the Bears' top players and forcing Slonaker to throw a very young and untested team to the wolves.
The result was a 6-23 season, but a team that showed flashes of brilliance and a promise of great things to come by winning three of their last six. Aleem Muhammed stepped up, leading Mercer in scoring with 17.2 points per game. For the third straight year, the Bears placed a player on the all-conference team, with Muhammed earning second-team honors.
With a young group that had to learn on the job before getting Emerson and Wesley Duke back from injuries, Mercer once again was predicted to make a run for the title in 2002-03.
This time, the Bears did not disappoint. Mercer jumped out of the gates by winning seven of their first 10 and never looked back. In the process, the Bears set a school record for most wins in a season with 23, including a 12-game winning streak that sent Mercer into the Collegeinsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 for the first time.
The Bears were once again rewarded for their hard work, winning their first-ever A-Sun regular season championship with a 14-2 conference record. Emerson earned first-team all-conference honors with Muhammed being named to the second team.
It was also a crowning season for Slonaker. He was honored as the A-Sun "Coach of the Year" by his peers and won the Jim Phelan Award as the national coach of the year.
In addition, Slonaker had authored the greatest single-season turnaround in NCAA history, improving on the previous season by 17 games.
With Emerson and Duke returning for the 2003-04 season, the Bears were set to repeat as conference champs and another run at the "Big Dance."
Once again, the injury bug hit Mercer hard. The Bears didn't play with their complete roster until Jan. 30, more than 20 games into the regular season. Mercer had eight players miss a total of 38 games, including Emerson, who missed 12 games after being named the preseason Player-of-the-Year by the A-Sun.
The bright side of the season came on Jan. 27 when Slonaker sent his team on the floor of the Bears' new home court - the University Center.
His team responded to its new arena by winning three of four games in its new home, including a 73-55 win over in-state rival Georgia State.
Under Slonaker's guidance the Bears were back in contention for the regular season conference title race in 2004-05. Behind the play of Will Emerson, Wesley Duke and Damitrius Coleman, who led the nation in assists, the 2004-05 edition of the Bears were 6-2, including 2-0 in the A-Sun, heading into the New Year.
Mercer lost a heartbreaking 104-101 triple overtime decision at home to FAU on Jan. 3, but bounced back to defeat eventual A-Sun Tournament champion UCF just two days later, 80-71.
The Bears headed to Gardner-Webb in early February with a share of the conference lead at stake, but fell short by a 82-71 count. The loss was the start of a four-game losing streak that put the Bears in a must-win situation when Stetson came calling on Feb. 27. And as they say, the rest is history as senior James Odoms drained a shot at the buzzer to give the Bears a one-point win and assured Mercer its third straight conference tournament berth.
The 2005-06 campaign saw Mercer start slowly and battle through an up-and-down season as the Bears played 10 of their first 13 games away from the friendly confines of the University Center. Mercer dropped seven of its first eight contests, but recovered late in the season, winning three of its last five regular-season games, all on the road. Over the Bears' final 11 regular-season conference contests, the average margin of victory for either team was just 5.2 points, with two of the games being decided by six points, two by three points, one by two points, three by a single point and two in overtime. Slonaker went on to lead the Bears to their fourth consecutive A-Sun tournament. appearance.
With the win at Kennesaw State, Jan. 28, 2006, he notched his 100th career victory at Mercer and recorded his 104th win at the helm of the Mercer program with the win at UNF, passing James Cowan for sole possession of third place on the school's all-time wins list.
Slonaker received his bachelors degree from Georgia in physical education in 1980 and earned his masters degree in sports administration from Georgia State in 1989.
He is currently serving on the NCAA’s Division I Men’s Basketball Issues Committee and is on the voting panel for CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Top 25.
Slonaker and his wife Kathy are the proud parents of three children. Their oldest son, Michael, 22, is a senior at Mercer and is expected to contribute quality minutes again this season. The couple also has a daughter, Meaghan, 20, and a son Patrick, 18.
Assistant Coach Mark Dannhoff
Assistant Coach Jeremy Ballard