Dr. Paul Conn, president of Lee Unniersity, received a message about noon Friday giving notice there would be good news for the school coming out of an afternoon press conference. It is a message he has anxiously waited for six weeks.
Gulf South Commissioner Nathan Salant invited Lee to join the conference in late May, pending the NCAA’s acceptance into the membership process.
“It was very exciting for us. There were nothing but smiles around here when we learned our application had been accepted,” Dr. Conn said.
“Nate Salant called Friday night to congratulate us. He and his staff have been very helpful through this process. He already is thinking of Lee as if we were already full members of the conference. I am convinced more than ever that the Gulf South is going to be the best possible Division II conference in the country for us. Some people call it ‘the SEC of Divison II’ and I can see why it has such a great reputation.”
Lee will play one more season in the NAIA Southern States Athletic Conference before being incorporated into all 2013-14 Gulf South athletic schedules and becoming eligible for postseason play in the 2015-16 season.
One of the keys to the move is hiring Paul Cretton as director of compliance. Cretton is a former assistant principal at Walker Valley High School. He also compiled a 148-19 record in six years to earn the highest winning percentage in the history of Bradley Central girls’ basketball.
Dr. Conn described Cretton as an experienced athletic administrator who would be involved in every aspect of the transition from the NAIA to the NCAA.
“The NCAA puts a big emphasis on this position,” he said. “It’s something we have never had before at Lee — a full-time compliance director — and Cretton is the perfect man for the job. He will be joining Larry Carpenter and me at a special NCAA work session in October in Indianapolis, to begin learning the ropes. We plan to make full use of his energy and experience.”
“During the last quarter century at Lee, we can look back and see a handful of big watershed events,”Conn said.
“There are certain defining moments that were huge in shaping the institution. This is one of those big moments. We have spent 40 years at one stage, athletically, and now we move to a different stage,” he said.
“I can almost feel things shift at a very deep level. It’s more than just athletics, really. “It’s a symbol of a larger move for the university as a whole.”
The university president said there have been internal discussions about moving to NCAA DII in the last two years, and very intently for the past year. He discussed the move with the board of directors in a January 2012 meeting, and in a meeting on May 4, he recommended pursuing DII membership in the Gulf South.
“I think our coaches are ready for this move. With very few exceptions, Lee teams have been nationally competitive in NAIA, year in and year out,” he said. “After we complete the three-year transition period, I think the NCAA brand will help our coaches in recruiting fine athletes. These young athletes want to compete against the best, and the public perception is the NCAA brand represents a higher level of play. I think our coaches are up to the challenge.”
The NCAA review involved more than just win-loss records. It included the depth and quality of the entire athletic program beyond the performance of the school’s athletes and coaches.
A big part of the evaluation included the trainers, sports information staff, academic personnel, and facilities management.
“We were optimistic about the NCAA decision, but we have learned over the years to take nothing for granted,” Dr. Conn said.
“So although I can’t say that we were surprised, we didn’t relax until I saw it in black and white on Friday. Nothing is done until it’s done. To remind us of that point, Georgetown College’s application for candidacy was not approved this year. It is a fine school with a good athletic program, but for whatever reasons, they didn’t make the cut.
“The NCAA is very thorough, and there is nothing automatic about this process. We intend to stay on top of our game and take nothing for granted.”
The Flames will join 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 in the Gulf South Conference. Lee offers 17 team sports for men and women athletes.
“My fellow presidents in NCAA DII schools have been very complimentary of Lee and helpful to us,” Dr. Conn said. “But before we make the switch, we have one last year to compete in NAIA and the Southern States conference. I want it to be our best year ever. I have said to our coaches, ‘let’s leave at our peak.’ The SSAC is a terrific conference, and the hardest part of making this transition will be saying goodbye to our colleagues in this conference.”
Salant said in May Lee is a good fit because of the Gulf South’s strong history in women’s basketball, women’s softball and women’s tennis.
“Our volleyball has had ups and downs,” Salant said. “Lee has a strong volleyball program that can only help us. We need men’s soccer teams. Lee has a very solid program. We need women’s golf teams. So again, it’s a very nice fit there in terms of addressing some of the sports in which we are seeking to become stronger.”
Dr. Conn said Friday, “If I had to point to one thing in athletics which I am most proud of, it would be our success in emphasizing women’s sports. We wanted to make Lee University ‘the place’ for women’s athletics and that commitment shows. We take female athletes seriously, and we have absolutely no problem with gender parity at Lee. It is a fact of life in every aspect of the program.”
Under the direction of head coach Matt Yelton, the Lady Flames Soccer team has won the last four consecutive NAIA National championships.
Lee University has been a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics since 1975. They began with the Tennessee Valley Athletic Conference, then to the TranSouth Athletic Conference and the past several years have been in the Southern States Athletic Conference.