Obviously, this elevation from the widely respected NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) will broaden the opportunity for Lee University athletes — men and women — to compete on a larger, more prominent national stage.
Yet where growth comes athletically, assuredly the same path will be followed academically. Under the visionary guidance of President Dr. Paul Conn for the past quarter-century, Lee University has enjoyed a widely recognized reputation nationally for excellence within its academic disciplines. Gulf South Conference leaders have wasted little time pointing to this strength in welcoming their newest member.
Those familiar with such transitions understand a college’s or university’s move from the NAIA to the NCAA stretches far beyond the sports arena and the number of wins versus losses. True, Lee University is a perennial powerhouse in many of its 17 organized men’s and women’s sports within the Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC), but the NCAA looks for more than just winning percentages among those who wish to join its ranks.
In any review of a school’s application for membership, the NCAA evaluates academic personnel, facilities management, overall campus atmosphere and physical condition, and certainly the internal athletic department including sports information staff, trainers, and coaching quality and numbers.
Certainly Lee University has scored high in each of these categories thanks to its mindset on growth and its mission for managing such growth while maintaining the highest possible standards in academic and athletic quality.
As we have said in past editorial opinions, moving into the NCAA is a golden opportunity for a university that seeks to elevate its own performance level both in the field of athletics and within the classroom. Lee should face little difficulty in elevating its game among the academic disciplines because it is already there.
Athletically, the challenge will be greater.
Jumping from NAIA to NCAA Division II is not necessarily a David and Goliath pairing, but certainly the bar has been raised. Although Lee athletes have excelled in the SSAC, their success will face stiffer challenges within the NCAA, an organization — even in the smaller Division II classification — that recruits actively for the finest athletes regionally, nationally and internationally.
But the same can be said for many NAIA schools, especially among those with proven track records for success whether in men’s or women’s sports, and regardless of being within the basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, cross-country or other venues.
Although Lee University Flames supporters should not expect instant success, they also should not fear this wonderful new level of competition.
Change is good. Growth is even better.
Lee University will get both by stepping into NCAA Division II.
For those unfamiliar with the Gulf South Conference, Lee’s new rivals will become the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Christian Brothers University, Delta State University, University of North Alabama, University of New Orleans, Valdosta State University, University of West Alabama, University of West Florida and University of West Georgia.
Some call the Gulf South the SEC of Division II. If so, Lee’s jump to the NCAA could be accompanied by short- or long-term growing pains, one of which might be the loss of its perennial powerhouse image.
But anything lost eventually can be regained.
We congratulate Lee University, its diverse student body, its faculty and administrators, and certainly its eager athletes for this bold move.
It won’t be easy. But it’s not supposed to be.