Lee University is moving on up.
The longtime NAIA school in Cleveland was unanimously accepted Friday as a member of the Gulf South Conference in NCAA Division II, pending expected approval by the national association. Lee would play one more school year in the NAIA's Southern States Athletic Conference and then have an inaugural year in the GSC without being eligible for league championships or postseason play.
"We have been discussing the move to NCAA DII for the last two years, and very intently for the past year," Lee president Dr. Paul Conn said Saturday from Lewiston, Idaho, where the baseball Flames are in the NAIA World Series. "I discussed it with the board of directors in its January 2012 meeting, and in its meeting on May 4 I recommended that we pursue DII membership in the Gulf South, and they authorized me to do so.
"We explored membership in two other DII conferences and had positive conversations with each," Conn continued. "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."
Shorter University from the SSAC and Union University in Jackson, Tenn., are making the move this coming year to the Gulf South.
Conn noted that a GSC committee including league commissioner Nate Salant, West Alabama's president and Alabama-Huntsville's and Delta State's athletic directors visited the Lee campus earlier this month and reported favorably to the GSC's expansion committee.
Other current league members are Christian Brothers, North Alabama, Valdosta State, West Florida and West Georgia.
With more than 4,500 students, Lee is the largest private university besides Vanderbilt in Tennessee, and it has grown immensely in buildings and facilities during Conn's 26 years as president. It has won the Commissioner's Cup for the best overall athletic program in the SSAC six of the last seven years.
Salant's statement Friday called Lee "one of the best NAIA schools in the country, not only from an athletic perspective but also from an academic one. Lee is not your typical private school in that is very large, has a tremendous following in the community and is in very good financial shape." He further praised Lee's emphasis on women's sports as an attraction for his league.
"The action of the Gulf South Conference opens the door for us to begin a process that we believe will raise the level of athletics at Lee," Conn said. "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."
Lee has won the last four NAIA national championships in women's soccer, and two-time NAIA player of the year Jamie Achten was honored last weekend by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame as co-female athlete of the year for the state.
Lee also has made final fours in baseball, basketball and volleyball while regularly garnering national qualifiers or high rankings in softball, golf, men's soccer, tennis and cross country.
Conn acknowledged that the move "will be a big challenge" in "competing against some very strong institutions" but added that "our athletes and coaches have earned an opportunity to test themselves at this level."
Said athletic director Larry Carpenter, a former Christian college basketball All-American and coach at the school: "I've been part of Lee athletics for 37 years and have witnessed many historic events during that time. The invitation to join the Gulf South Conference marks yet another event. We've enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the SSAC and NAIA but understand the challenge that comes by playing in the most competitive conference in NCAA II.
"The GSC schools are consistently vying for national championships and this year alone have already won won national title and had a national finalist."