CLEVELAND, Tenn. — NAIA power Lee University received notice Friday afternoon that it officially had been accepted for NCAA membership.
The Cleveland school already had been welcomed to the Gulf South Conference, pending NCAA approval, and will begin provisional play in that Division II league in 2013-14. Lee will complete one more year in the NAIA and the Southern States Athletic Conference.
"It was very exciting," Dr. Paul Conn, Lee's president, said in a Saturday release about Friday's news. "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 for a long time."
Paul Cretton, a former Lee basketball standout and assistant coach and area high school coach and administrator, has been hired as Lee's first full-time director of compliance to oversee eligibility and related issues in the transition. He will accompany Conn and athletic director Larry Carpenter to an NCAA work session in Indianapolis in October.
Conn said Lee had been "optimistic" about NCAA approval, but "we didn't relax until I saw it in black and white on Friday. ... 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 noted that another "fine school with a good athletic program" in a neighboring state was not approved this year for a move from the NAIA to the NCAA.
He added that GSC commissioner Nate Salant and his staff had been "very helpful" during the application process and that Lee's people had been treated throughout "as if we were already full members of the conference. 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."
As for the Flames' and Lady Flames' final year in the NAIA, Conn said, "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."
One coach whose team cannot reach a higher peak this fall is Matt Yelton, whose Lady Flames have won the last four NAIA soccer national championships.
"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," Yelton said. "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."
While women's soccer is Lee's only national-championship program, several of the school's other teams have had No. 1 rankings and been final-four finishers or regular national contenders, but Conn noted that "the public perception is that the NCAA brand represents a higher level of play. I think our coaches are up to the challenge."
Carpenter, a former standout player and basketball coach at Lee, agreed with that.
"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," the AD said.
Said Conn: "During the last quarter of a 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."