Thousands upon thousands of fans over the past three decades have passed through the turnstiles and taken their seats to watch the Tennessee Lady Vols.
Joan Cronan wasn’t one of them.
The Lady Vols’ athletic director could’ve enjoyed a front-row view of their sporting events. Instead she preferred being up and about, always seeking another hand to shake or back to slap.
Cronan retired last week after serving for two years as advisor to chancellor Jimmy Cheek. From 1983 to 2012, she helped build and oversee one of the nation’s most respected and popular women’s programs, which grew to 10 sports and a multi-million dollar budget until being merged with the men’s department in 2012. Under her watch, fund raising and marketing blossomed. The success of women’s basketball buttressed a worldwide stature.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said Cronan’s legacy “transcends her remarkable career at the University of Tennessee.” Chris Plonsky, the director of women’s athletics at Texas, described Cronan as “a pillar” of their profession.
Yet, Susan Williams, the LadyVols’ former associate athletic director for development, believes that many Tennessee fans will remember Cronan less as an influential administrator and more as the folksy person who stopped by their seat. Restlessness has its rewards.
“If you could ask the public: What’s your image of Joan? It’s circling, circling,” Williams said, “stopping, talking to everyone in the gym, which frankly is what made that program so popular with the fans.” Cronan’s working image came courtesy of Jerry Jones. She didn’t like the Dallas Cowboys owner for firing coach Tom Landry. But Cronan did favor Jones’ definition of leadership: “A leader is a person
Joan Cronan was the UT women’s athletic director from 1983-2012, helping build a popular brand for Lady Vols sports. She retired last week after spending two years as senior advisor to the chancellor.
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with a vision and a sphere of influence to make it happen.” Cronan, 70, recalled sharing that thought with Pat Summitt after the former Lady Vols’ basketball coach once scolded Cronan for missing a key play while walking her beat.
“I told Pat, ‘You know I’m taping the game at home. I can watch it at home. But I don’t have an opportunity to sell our program when I get home at midnight tonight,’ ” the women’s athletic director emeritus said last month while reminiscing, sitting in a conference room at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I never was an AD who wanted to be sitting behind a desk. I didn’t think that was my job. My job was to sell the program, to raise money, to have that sphere of influence.”
‘YOU WERE RIGHT’
A statue of Summitt rises nearly nine-feet tall and is the centerpiece of a plaza at the corner of Lake Loudoun Boulevard and Phillip Fulmer Way. The sculpture was unveiled last November to commemorate Summitt’s 38-year coaching career, highlighted by 1,098 victories and eight national championships.
Cronan is being honored as well. The new volleyball practice facility adjacent to Regal Soccer Stadium is named after her.
The difference in the two tributes reflects the difference in their profiles. A favorite line in nearly all of Cronan’s speeches during her career was, “As long as Pat Summitt is there, I’m a great AD.” But Summitt asked Cronan to be there as well. She was content to be the athletic director at the College of Charleston (S.C.). While visiting on a recruiting trip, Summitt suggested a different career path.
“We were going to lunch,” Cronan said. “We were driving down Broad Street and I’ll never forget it. She said, ‘Why don’t you apply for the AD’s job?’ I almost wrecked.” Summitt didn’t get the recruit that trip. Katrina Mc-Clain went to Georgia and became an All-American. But Cronan applied and became much more than a consolation prize.
Cronan’s supporting role in Summitt’s success began with the interview. Cronan wouldn’t accept the predetermination by then-university president Ed Boling and Summitt that the Lady Vols would stay in Stokely Athletics Center rather than move to Thompson-Boling, which was in the planning stages.
“One of the nicest notes Pat ever wrote me was simply, ‘You were right,’ ” Cronan said.
Summitt sent another note last week on Twitter, using the social media forum to say, “Can’t express my thanks &appreciation enough for the years spent with @JoanCronan while at UT. Now work on your golf game!” Cronan grew up beforeTitle IX, the landmark 1972 legislation that banned sex discrimination in schools. Being unable to play organized sports while growing up gave her the requisite passion for her career. Former women’s basketball TV analyst Mimi Griffin thinks that administrators like Cronan also had greater patience.
“They understand the value of a small victory,” Griffin said. “You can pace yourself in a way that allows you to be more successful. You don’t burn out and you don’t alienate people.” Sherri Parker Lee is a Lady Vols fan and donor, who contributed $2 million toward the softball stadium. She lauded Cronan’s “positive energy” and “grace.” She also considered Cronan’s ability to circumvent the ugly stereotypes and prejudices that shadow women’s athletics.
“Tennessee is as homophobic as anywhere,” Parker Lee said. “It wasn’t like she didn’t have to swim upstream.” By Cronan’s count, she worked with 11 presidents, seven chancellors and four athletic directors at Tennessee and described all of them as supportive. Her NCAA committee work enhanced her national profile and the university’s. She was comfortable with being included in a “You guys” reference, provided she was sitting at the same decisionmaking table with the guys.
“I know some people thought she was too good of a good ol’ boy, that she was too much in the club,” Williams said. “But her reason for being in the club was in order to make women’s athletics stronger. I have no problem with that. I totally get that.” Williams worked with Cronan from 1988-95 and later served for 12 years on UT’s Board of Trustees. She stated the obvious in saying Summitt played a “humongous” part in enhancing the Lady Vols brand. Not so apparent, Williams said,was Cronan expanding the brand to include golf, softball, soccer and rowing. The growth was achieved without football or men’s basketball suffering.
“With the support football has, how do you give women an equal opportunity without making every guy who’s ever played football or basketball at Tennessee mad at you?” Williams said. “The fact she was able to maneuver through the minefields that were national and local in scope and add the teams and give all the young women opportunities certainly is one of her greatest achievements.”
‘SOME ROUGH TERRITORY’
Cronan readily describes herself as a “Pollyanna,” which translates roughly into someone who’s optimistic regardless of circumstances. Her outlook has been challenged by the merger of athletic departments.
In a story in Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal published last February, Cronan described split athletic departments as comparable to “driving a car that nobody makes anymore.” Last month she said, “We were marching to a different drummer.” “I didn’t think they’d merge until I retired,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of making some of that happen. Yes, I think it’s going to work. Title IX and women’s athletics are here to stay.” In UT’s case, consolidation has been accompanied by two lawsuits. Former Lady Vols media relations director Debby Jennings is suing the university and Hart, alleging that age and sex discrimination led to her forced retirement. The suit alleges that 12 of the 15 employees laid off in the merger were female.
Jenny Moshak, the former associate director of sports medicine, along with former strength and conditioning coaches Heather Mason and Collin Schlosserallege in their suit that the university set up a “testosterone wall” preventing female employees or employees associated with women’s teams from earning equal pay. They’re suing for discrimination and retaliation.
“Some of the collateral damage, I think, has bothered her,” Williams said. “It’s not something she can control or fix.” Cronan said that she didn’t want to “get into personalities” but conceded, “I think as we go forward we’ll look back at some rough territory in the merger.” In true “Pollyanna” fashion, she added: “I hope we all come out on the other end with great memories of what happened.” Cronan was more expansive and sounded more like an athletic director, though, in discussing the Lady Vols brand, particularly the iconic logo. Fans continue to worry about the survival of both entities in the new order.
“I hope the logo is here to stay,” Cronan said. “It stands for so much. I’ve often said that McDonald’s won’t do away with its arches. You’re looking at McDonald’s today and the new McDonald’s, they’re different. The arches aren’t where they used to be. But the arches are still there. I think the Lady Vols logo will still be there.” Williams believes Cronan feels the same way about the brand as a whole, which stands as her landmark achievement.
“I would hate to see what took decades to build, like the logo, like all of that, I’d hate to see that go away,” Williams said.
‘GAVE HER BREATH’
Williams wonders and perhaps worries whether retirement will leave Cronan breathless.
“She loves her children, she loves her grandchildren, she loves her friends, she loves her church – all of those things,” Williams said. “But that program really is what gave her breath. I really think she lived and breathed women’s athletics. It will be interesting to see what her next chapter will be. ” Not to fear, Cronan said. She will continue traveling, speaking and fund-raising. She’s expanded the latter endeavor to include Summitt’s foundation.
Cronan will add consulting work to her revised daily planner. She’s also working on a book that correlates sports to life and business.
There’s always her five grandchildren to dote on, too .
“I’m as excited today as I was when I took over the program here,” Cronan said.
Sounds like she’s drawing a second wind. She’s definitely not taking a seat. On second thought, Williams suspects a life of circling hasn’t come full circle yet.
“She will represent the University of Tennessee and she will represent women’s athletics, whatever she does, wherever she goes,” Williams said, “because it is such a part of who she is. She will never be able to turn that off.”
UT women’s basketball head coach emeritus Pat Summitt, center, talks with chancellor Jimmy Cheek and women’s athletic director emeritus Joan Cronan during the dedication of the Tennessee Blue Book on Feb. 28.
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Then women’s athletic director Joan Cronan, center, then special events and marketing manager Carol Evans, left, and then assistant athletics director for development Susan Williams with Lady Vol items in 1991.
NEWS SENTINEL FILE
Knoxville News Sentinel
By Dan Fleser