July 16, 2012–Cleveland, TN–Lee University has officially been invited by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to begin a three-year process toward full membership in Division II. This past May the Gulf South Conference also extended an invitation to the university, pending Lee being accepted by the NCAA.Lee will continue to be a member of the NAIA and Southern States Athletic Conference for one more school year. In 2013-14, the Flames and Lady Flames will play a full schedule against Gulf South opponents.
Lee President Dr. Paul Conn said he received a message from the NCAA around noon on Friday, giving him a heads-up that there would be good news in the press conference that afternoon. “It was very exciting. Nothing but smiles around here when we learned that our application had been accepted, and we can now begin our candidacy period. We have looked forward to this moment for a long time.”
The Flames will immediately begin the transition period to become compliant with all NCAA rules and regulations.
“We were optimistic about the NCAA decision, but we have learned over the years to take nothing for granted,” said Conn. “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. 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.”
Conn feels Lee’s acceptance into the Gulf South Conference is also a huge step in the right direction. “Nate Salant, commissioner of the GSC 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, and 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 Division II,” and I can see why it has such a great reputation.
“My fellow presidents in NCAA Division II schools have been very complimentary of Lee and helpful to us,” Conn added, “But before we make the switch, we have one last year to compete in NAIA and the SSAC, and 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.”
The Lee president feels his coaches are ready for this move. “With very few exceptions, Lee teams have been nationally competitive in NAIA, year in and year out. 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 that the NCAA brand represents a higher level of play. I think our coaches are up to the challenge.”
Women’s soccer coach Matt Yelton, who has directed his Lady Flames to four consecutive NAIA National Championships, shares the same feelings. “The move to the NCAA is something I am very excited about and I believe it is the right time and right occasion for us to make this move. The NAIA has been a good organization for our university, but we are now ready for new challenges and I believe the NCAA provides exactly those types of opportunities.”
“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,” said Conn. “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.”
The Lee leader quickly points out that there is plenty of work ahead for the entire athletic staff. “One of the keys to this move is the hiring of Paul Cretton as director of compliance. He is an experienced athletic administrator, and he will be involved in every aspect of our transition. The NCAA puts a big emphasis on this position. 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 (athletic director) Larry Carpenter and me at a special NCAA work session in October in Indianapolis, to begin learning the ropes, and we plan to make full use of his energy and experience.
“The NCAA is not just evaluating our won-loss records, but the depth and quality of the entire program,” Conn noted. “The public sees our athletes and coaches perform, but the behind-the-scenes support structure is a big part of the NCAA review. Think about it – trainers, sports information staff, academic personnel, facilities management – all of that is part of a high-quality athletic program, and that was all part of what the NCAA looks at.”
His closing remarks echo the direction he wants to provide for the university’s overall programs. “During the last quarter century at Lee, we can look back and see a handful of big watershed events. 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. 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.”
Dr. Walt Mauldin, Lee Vice-President of Administration, asks and answers his own question: “Why would we want to move to NCAA Division II? We make this transition for our student athletes, our coaches, and the entire community. Our goal is to provide an opportunity for Lee University to compete at the next level.”
Carpenter, who had been a player, coach and is currently serving as AD at the NAIA level, called this “an exciting time for Lee athletics.”
He reviewed the events that have occurred over the past seven weeks. “During that time we received an invitation from the Gulf South Conference, one of the finest and toughest conferences in NCAA Division II, and now the NCAA. As with all things at Lee, we strive to grow and take on new challenges. We feel like this is one that can take us to a new level. Our coaches are excited about the new conference and will do a great job throughout the provisional period as we prepare for full membership in three years. This is something we are very proud of and hope our students and community will enjoy the transition with us.”
(Source: Lee University Public Information)