He is correct.
But in the tradition of those who have proven themselves winners in athletics, academics and in life, Conn believes — as do we — the time has come for the Flames to raise the bar on decades of success within the National Athletics Intercollegiate Association. For years, especially since Conn’s arrival as president more than a quarter of a century ago, Lee University has stood at the pinnacle of success across the athletic board — baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, basketball, golf and tennis, among others, some of which field both men’s and women’s teams.
Lee offers 17 team sports and has competed as a proud member of the NAIA since 1975. In that time, the school has held membership in the Tennessee Valley Athletic Conference and in the TranSouth, and for the past several years has led in the Southern States Athletic Conference. Within the SSAC, Lee University has won the Commissioner’s Cup six out of the last seven years, and the last three years in a row. The prestigious cup honors the best overall athletic program within the conference.
These achievements point to the relevance of Conn’s belief that “... our athletes and our coaches have earned an opportunity to test themselves at this level.”
Like those who raise an eyebrow at turning from a tradition of success within the NAIA and risking a winning image by going head-to-head against proven NCAA Division II teams, Conn acknowledges the severe test his Flames athletes will face if the NCAA rules favorably on the Lee membership application.
“This move will be a big challenge for all of us,” he told our newspaper. “We will be competing against some very strong institutions.”
That’s reason enough to make such a bold move.
If the NCAA opens its arms to Lee University, the Cleveland school will join GSC teams like 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.
Lee University has held promising discussions with two additional conferences, but the school likes the GSC because it is considered the strongest conference in the Southeast region and it is believed to be the “best fit” because of the size of its schools, its mix of public and private institutions, its high quality of athletic competition at the national level, and its strong tradition of presidential leadership.
That’s how Lee feels about the GSC. Put the shoe on the other foot and observers will find the Gulf South Conference is in love with the idea of welcoming Lee University.
Why would the so-called “SEC of Division II” be so enamored by an NAIA school whose growing pains beg for this opportunity?
GSC Commissioner Nathan Salant gave our newspaper the answer.
“It (Lee) has a gorgeous campus, academics are strong, the school is continually growing and they’ve competed incredibly in the NAIA on the national level,” he told us. “We want to strengthen our league in certain sports and they (Lee) are strong in those sports. Lee University has had success on the national level across the board. The Gulf South Conference is considered the SEC of Division II so it’s a natural fit to bring in a national power from the NAIA into a national power conference.”
His words speak volumes.
Lee University has earned this chance. We urge the NCAA to look favorably upon the school’s application. Likewise, we encourage the Cleveland and Bradley County community to support this possible transition.
If Lee moves to the NCAA, its athletes will be sorely tested.
But then, when was the last time this fine university backed down from a challenge?