Such might have been the case last week in the Cleveland and Bradley County community, and surrounding areas, with the announcement by Lee University that it will not pursue football — at least, not yet — as an upcoming Division II member of the NCAA’s Gulf South Conference.
Any who wore a frown over the disclosure by Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn should be mindful of this: the decision was based on an exhaustive 18-month study by a diverse feasibility study committee whose membership included university staff, faculty, athletic department administrators, alumni and current students.
Thanks to hard work, the group served as the voice of reason.
Their intensive research was not limited to sitting around an oblong conference room table compiling an impromptu list of “advantages” and “disadvantages” of bringing football to a well-established and widely respected university whose primary focus is — and should be — academics.
Their work was detailed with a mindset on the “what ifs” of a gridiron program versus the “reality” of making it happen. The group even worked closely, and traveled to, existing schools with established football squads — specifically, Carson-Newman and Shorter University — to learn the “insides” of the total process.
Although we are not privy to the specifics of the committee’s final report to Conn, who later presented it to the Lee University board of directors, we can imagine this: such a commitment is expensive, its multi-year rollout would require vast resources for planning and it would involve more than just building — and funding — the necessary physical facilities. And, there’s also the question of adding an adequate coaching staff and support personnel, as well as the recruitment of responsible student athletes whose focus is education first.
Since the selection of Conn as its president some 28 years ago, Lee University’s growth has been nothing short of incredible — both physically and academically. For young minds serious about education, Lee University is a preferred school of destination — locally, in-state, nationally and globally.
But, make no mistake.
Lee University is also accomplished in many sports arenas. Championships as a former member of the NAIA and NCCAA are as multiple as they were frequent. More hardware is surely to come as a new member of the NCAA.
Thanks to the school’s balanced approach between scholastics and athletics, Lee’s stellar young athletes — both the Flames and Lady Flames — are accomplished in a plethora of organized sports like baseball (men), softball (women), volleyball (women), soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, track and cross-country. The university also fields a talented cheerleading squad that travels to organized competitions.
But reality dictates this: Football, especially at the NCAA level, is an expensive undertaking. Even with the cooperative support of Cleveland High and Bradley Central High schools, both of which were eager to share their sizable stadiums with a Lee Flames squad, the cost still would have been huge.
Such a mutual agreement might still be in the making five years down the road. In 2019, the university will again review the feasibility of football.
But in the meantime, Lee University has plenty on its plate, all of which involves either strategic planning or significant funding commitments, or both, for both the short and long term.
For example, the university this year is launching its new nursing program. In cooperation with the two-year degree already offered at Cleveland State Community College, this initiative brings the potential for a regionally, and nationally, recognized opportunity.
Financially, Lee remains in the middle of a costly development of its new “south campus” between Sixth Street and Central Avenue in downtown Cleveland. With its acquisition of property that now physically connects the school to the downtown area, Lee is boldly pursuing its impressive Arts and Communications Building, and other academic halls surely will follow.
In addition to all this new construction and academic growth, the university must also be mindful of two intangibles involving football; that is, the ongoing process of gaining full membership in NCAA Division II and the implications of a football program for Title IX (gender equity) compliance.
The day NCAA football comes to Lee University — and in time, we believe it is coming — will be a grand event for our hometown community and for all who are eager to support college football at this level.
But with all good things, patience is not only a virtue, it is necessary.
Given the circumstances, as we understand them, Lee University has made the right move.
“Not now, maybe later,” as worded in last week’s public announcement, is appropriate. The message is decisive, yet it also keeps doors open to the future.
Until that time, let us support Lee University in its continued growth — physically, academically, athletically and spiritually.
An untold number of jurisdictions the size of Cleveland yearn for higher-education institutions like Lee University and Cleveland State Community College.
Let us be thankful for who they are now and the rewards they bring to our people, our city and our region.