Salant said the conference’s executive committee unanimously voted to extend the invitation Thursday evening. The National Collegiate Athletic Association will decide in mid-July if Lee is accepted into the membership process. If accepted, the Flames would be incorporated into all 2013-14 athletic schedules and become eligible for postseason play in the 2015-16 season.
Salant, who described the Gulf South Conference “as the SEC of Division II,” said the conference is excited about the opportunity to include Lee University.
“It 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 said. “We want to strengthen our league in certain sports and they 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.”
Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn said there have been internal discussions about moving to NCAA DII for the last two years, and very intently for the past year. He discussed the move with the board of directors in its January 2012 meeting, and in its meeting on May 4, he recommended pursuing DII membership in the Gulf South. The board authorized him to do so.
“We explored membership in two other DII conferences, and had positive conversations with each,” he said. “Ultimately, however, we decided that the Gulf South is the strongest conference in this region, and the best fit for us, because of the size of its schools, the mix of public and private institutions, the high quality of athletic competition at the national level, and its strong tradition of presidential leadership.”
Salant said 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 and 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.”
Salant said no one can predict how well an NAIA team will compete in Division II, “but we have every reason to believe Lee will be successful.”
“This move will be a big challenge for all of us,” Conn said. “We will be competing against some very strong institutions. I believe our athletes and our coaches have earned an opportunity to test themselves at this level.”
A four-man team visited Lee early this month and did a thorough review of the school and athletic program. The team was led by the president of University of West Alabama and Salant, as well as the athletic directors from Alabama-Huntsville and Delta State University. That team made its report to the expansion committee, which unanimously recommended to the GSC Executive Committee that Lee be invited to join the conference. The executive committee voted unanimously to extend the invitation.
In its visit, the site team met with several community leaders, including Mayor Tom Rowland, radio personality Steve Hartline, bank president Lee Stewart, and others.
If the school’s application is successful, 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.
Lee offers 17 team sports for men and women athletes. The Flames have membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and play in the Southern States Athletic Conference.
“Lee has been a member of NAIA since 1975. We competed first in the Tennessee Valley Athletic Conference, then in the TranSouth, and for the past several years in the Southern States Athletic Conference,” Conn said. “We have won the Commissioners Cup, for the best overall athletic program, in the SSAC, six out of the last seven years, including the last three years in a row.
“The action of the Gulf States Conference opens the door for us to begin a process that we believe will raise the level of athletics at Lee. We will file an official application with the NCAA this week, and are optimistic that they will act favorably, although that is far from a sure thing.
“We enjoy our relationship with the SSAC. It is a fine conference, and we hate to leave it, but we feel that Lee’s trajectory for the past two decades has been always to become better and to operate at a higher level in every way, including athletics, and moving to the NCAA DII is the natural way for us to do that.”