'The Mayor' of Rocky Top
Joan Cronan’s SUV rolls past Neyland Stadium and turns onto Lake Loudoun Boulevard, just up the hill from the Tennessee River in Knoxville.
“There it is,” Cronan says, her voice lifted with pride as she points to the new 9-foot-tall statue of Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee’s legendary women’s basketball coach.
For 30 years, Summitt and Cronan were a powerful partnership.
Cronan, Tennessee’s longtime director of women’s athletics, was the facilitator, the one working behind the scenes to make sure the Lady Vols had all the resources to play at the highest level. Summitt went out and won the national championships, eight in all.
They build statues to Summitt, who was lifting the trophie sand doing the interviews. But in the process, Cronan carved out her own unique legacy across college athletics, blazing a trail for female administrators, breaking gender barriers in the Southeastern Conference’s good-ol’-boy network, and proving that women’s athletics could generate its own donations and revenue.
College writer Michael Smith and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour introduce Joan Cronan as one of this year's Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business.
What Cronan’s friends remember most about her 30 years at Tennessee aren’t necessarily the most obvious results of her work — the national championships, the facilities she built or the millions of dollars she raised.
It’s the grace with which she did her job, the way she made an impact around a table of all-male SEC athletic directors, acting like she belonged from the first day; the way she greeted fans at Thompson-Boling Arena, where she’s known as “The Mayor;” and the way she made donor dinners feel like a family reunion.
It wasn’t so much that she kicked in doors as one of the first female college administrators truly in charge. She didn’t. Wasn’t her style. Her powers of persuasion were more subtle, rooted in friendship and her eternal optimism and determination that all things were possible.
“She embraced everything that was possible for women’s athletics,” said Judy Rose, AD at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “She took the Lady Vols brand and made it more visible than a lot of their men’s programs. When you look at the way Joan created the resources for women’s athletics, we all aspire to have what Tennessee has.”
Cronan served as the women’s athletic director at Tennessee from 1983 through 2012, overseeing a program of 11 sports and a budget of close to $30 million until the school recently merged its men’s and women’s programs. She took over at a pivotal time for women’s athletics. Title IX was a decade old and the NCAA had just begun to sponsor women’s championships in 1982.
|Cronan gave the Lady Vols’ brand a special place within UT and college athletics. Below: With her two daughters and their families.
The Volunteers’ AD in the 1970s, Bob Woodruff, “didn’t want to mess with women’s sports,” recalls Lady Vols historian Debby Schriver, who wrote the book “In the Footsteps of Champions,” a chronicle of Tennessee’s 30-plus years of women’s athletics. “He gave the women’s program some money to get started and inadvertently did something wonderful. He
Cronan thrived in the role once she arrived in Knoxville, leading not only the Lady Vols’ program, but establishing herself as a force at SEC meetings and on NCAA committees. From the time she got the Tennessee job, she attended SEC meetings and was the only woman at the table.
Whenever TV network executives would speak to the room of ADs, they’d typically say, “You guys … and Joan.”
Early on, Cronan let it be known that it wasn’t necessary to single her out.
“I don’t mind being included in ‘You guys,’” she told them. “When I coached, I coached man-to-man defense, not woman-to-woman.”
“I really have to say that from the beginning, I felt welcomed and included,” Cronan added. “And I felt like I had something to contribute.”
She later became among the first women to serve on the NCAA’s executive committee and management council, and in 2008, Cronan became just the fourth woman to be named president of NACDA, the trade association for all athletic directors.
“Joan became a pillar for so many of us,” said Chris Plonsky, director of women’s athletics at Texas.
“I don’t worry about Tennessee’s future,” said Cronan, who turns 70 this week. “The Lady Vols brand stands for so much and I’m so proud of it.”
Cronan, who carries the title women’s AD emeritus and senior adviser to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, will officially retire when her contract expires in June. She said the easiest way for the program to move forward was for her to step aside.
“The split athletic departments are like driving a car that nobody makes anymore,” Cronan said. “I felt like it was my job to help make the merger happen. And it was a merger, not a takeover. I knew it would be easier once I retired.”
Some of her closest friends, and many of those around the program, see the last two years as the end of an era. Summitt, diagnosed with early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s, retired unexpectedly in 2012. And soon Cronan will follow.
It’s not the scenario either would have drawn up, especially considering the health challenges that confront Summitt, but Cronan has charged forward with her usual grace and optimism.
“It’s amazing the incredible impact they’ve had, not only in women’s athletics, but the way they transformed a community,” said Sherri Parker Lee, the Tennessee donor who gave $2 million to the school for its softball stadium. “Joan was the overlooked person, of the two of them. You think about what she did, going into that good-ol’-boy network in the SEC … I would have gone home and beat my head against the wall. But Joan was so balanced and she just kept smiling.
“Her legacy wasn’t just what she did, but how she did it. UT is going to miss her.”
Cronan has told the story a hundred times by now, but it never loses its significance. It remains a source of motivation, even now.
She was a 12-year-old girl growing up in Opelousas, La., the oldest of three children in the small town just west of Baton Rouge, in the middle of Cajun country. Her father always kept someone who could speak French in his office, where he ran a financing business.
Right behind their house was City Park, where the boys would gather and teams were chosen for the youth baseball season each spring. Cronan described herself as a “tomboy,” confident she could play with the boys.
|Cronan oversaw the growth of the Lady Vols’ basketball program and fought to keep it on equal footing with the men’s program.
The director of the league said she could do something more traditional for females, like lead the cheers or keep score. But playing with the boys was out of the question.
That spring day in Opelousas has stayed with her for nearly 60 years. Cronan can smile now as she retells the story, but the power of it hasn’t changed.
“I was so disappointed,” she said, shaking her
After graduating from LSU, where she studied physical education, Cronan’s first jobs were in coaching, both at Northwestern State in her home state and then at Tennessee, where she coached women’s basketball, a club sport back then, and taught PE from 1968 through ’70.
It was the career of her husband, Tom, that brought them to Knoxville the first time in the late 1960s. Cronan got the coaching job at Tennessee by simply asking for it. Women’s athletics were run out of the PE department at the time.
When it came time to order uniforms for the basketball team, Cronan couldn’t find the Tennessee orange in the style that she preferred, so she had to pick an alternative color. She chose light blue, and that’s what the women’s team wore during those two seasons.
Over time, that light blue became the secondary color in the uniforms — and became part of the Lady Vols’ own unique logo. Only the women’s uniforms are trimmed in light blue.
“The Lady Vols’ brand became very distinctive, and having our own look and identity was central to that,” Cronan said of the logo, which was created by Gloria Ray, the Lady Vols’ first AD, in 1976.
Over the years, Cronan fiercely defended the women’s logo and their separate identity.
When it was suggested that the men’s and women’s basketball teams play doubleheaders to help fill cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena, Cronan balked. She wouldn’t allow the nation’s most prestigious women’s program with the game’s best-known coach to be an opening act, even though doubleheaders had been routine before Cronan arrived.
She finally agreed in the 1990s to play two games on the same day, with the Lady Vols playing in the afternoon and the men’s team playing at night. Each game required separate tickets, and both games sold out, showing once again that the women’s program could carry its own weight.
Keeping that identity of the Lady Vols helped Cronan with fundraising for the women’s program, she said.
“Joan was out there pushing for women’s sports at a time when not a lot were,” said Gene DeFilippo, the former AD at Boston College and one of Cronan’s longtime friends in the business. “There were times when, I’m sure, that was very difficult. But you have to understand that Joan doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Now that the men’s and women’s programs have merged, some around campus are concerned that the Lady Vols will lose their trademark logo and light blue trim.
“People are very serious about keeping the Lady Vol brand. It’s an emotional topic,” Schriver said.
Added Cronan: “That would be like taking the golden arches away from McDonald’s.”
Combined with Cronan’s grace and optimism was a sense of timing to know when she needed to dig in her heels. In fact, the first time that happened, Cronan wasn’t even on the Tennessee payroll yet.
She had been the women’s AD at College of Charleston for 10 years when she went to lunch one day with Summitt. The two had met a few times and Summitt happened to be in Charleston on a recruiting trip. Summitt was serving as interim women’s AD at Tennessee, in addition to her coaching duties, while the school sought to replace Gloria Ray.
“I nearly ran off the road,” Cronan said with a laugh. “Tom and I were very happy in Charleston, but I knew Tennessee offered a much larger platform for women’s athletics.”
Until then, Joan and Tom had moved three times, each time for his career. But when the Tennessee AD job came along, Tom told Joan
During the interview with then-university President Ed Boling, they talked about plans for a new 24,000-seat basketball arena that would be a showcase for the men’s program. Cronan asked if the women would play there, too. Boling and Summit had agreed that the women would stay in the old, 12,700-seat Stokely Athletic Center, where the women could have it all to themselves and not have to worry about scheduling conflicts with the men.
That didn’t sit well with Cronan.
“I told them that if we weren’t going to play in the new arena, I didn’t want to be AD there,” Cronan said. “We’re saying that we’re building one of the finest facilities in the country and the women aren’t going to play in it? I couldn’t go along with that.”
Playing in the new Thompson-Boling Arena from day one gave the Lady Vols a credibility that Cronan needed for fundraising and political clout around campus, and it worked out in terms of attendance as well. The Lady Vols have averaged more than 10,000 fans per game since the 1996-97 season, and 12 times they’ve averaged more than the 12,700 capacity of Stokely Athletic Center (see chart, Page 32). In four seasons, they’ve averaged more fans than the men’s team.
As the women’s program grew, Cronan developed her own staff of publicists, marketers, trainers and accountants.
“Maintaining that autonomy was so important from the standpoint of branding and services,” Plonsky said. “Joan did this during a time of critical change for women’s athletics, and she gracefully carved out a path for herself and her program.”
Cronan again came to a critical moment politically in the early 1990s when Tennessee decided to renovate and expand the men’s basketball locker room. The only way to give the women’s locker room an equal expansion was to take away space from a visitors locker room.
“One of the administrators said, ‘That’ll happen over my dead body,’” Cronan said. “So when I heard about that, I called him and said, ‘When is the funeral?’ It was just a way to lighten things with humor, but still get the point across.”
“What Joan did was sell our product,” said current Tennessee women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick, who played at UT in the late 1970s and was a longtime assistant to Summitt before taking over as head coach two years ago. “She developed relationships with so many groups and she understood the business side of women’s athletics before anybody was really looking at women’s sports that way.
“She would drag Pat all over the place, and I’m sure there were times that Pat didn’t want to go, but she always did. Joan could talk Pat into just about anything. They had a great respect for one another.”
When women’s athletics needed training facilities and a weight room, Cronan raised the money herself and, over time, built a donor base for women’s sports through unique events like the Salute to Excellence dinner, which started in 1988. Fundraising dinners are hardly a novel concept, but Cronan and Summitt made theirs more intimate than the usual rubber-chicken dinner.
To generate money for scholarships and raise awareness for women’s athletics, they sold a limited number of tickets — initially no more than eight — to the dinner first held at Summitt’s home. Until his death in 2006, Joan’s husband, Tom, cooked fried green tomatoes for an appetizer, and Pat typically cooked dinner, which included country ham and vegetables. Guests wore formal attire and sneakers.
Over the years, a ticket for the evening ran $10,000 or more, and they expanded from one night a year to three. This will mark the 26th year of the event.
“Nights like that are where you truly start to build friendships,” said Lee, the UT donor. “The longer you know her, the more you start to understand that, like Pat, Joan has her own incredible following.”
During Cronan’s run at Tennessee, her fundraising grew from $25,000 a year to more than $2 million annually. The budget for women’s athletics, once no more than $1.2 million a year, increased to nearly $30 million. Most of the scholarships for female athletes now are endowed by gifts from Tennessee supporters.
Cronan, with the help of donations, built a softball stadium, a boathouse for the rowing team, a soccer stadium and she left plans for a golf practice facility.
She also lobbied hard for Summitt to be paid as well or better than the men’s basketball coach. Tennessee was one of the first to do so, and Summitt was making $2 million a year by the time she retired. The Lady Vols also were among the first women’s basketball teams to charter flights.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the way we were able to raise money for women and make money at the gate,” Cronan said. “That’s how we began to build. I didn’t want anything given to me. It was really important that we earned our way.”
|Cronan is now senior adviser to UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
Cronan also worked with ESPN to schedule high-profile games against Tennessee’s nemesis, Connecticut, in the middle of the SEC season. It wasn’t ideal timing, competitively, but those types of games proved to be terrific promotional tools for the sport, drawing tremendous crowds and a national TV audience.
The Lady Vols’ three largest home crowds are from games against UConn, each drawing in excess of 24,500.
“Joan has been a tremendous face for UT,” said former ESPN analyst Mimi Griffin, who will go into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame this year. “She paved the way for women’s athletics internally, and she did something just as important or more important. She protected Pat. She made sure that Pat had everything she needed so she could go win national championships and gain that national exposure that helped all of women’s basketball.”
Testaments to the Lady Vols’ success are evident all around Knoxville. A street is named after Pat Summitt, as is the court at Thompson-Boling Arena. Unveiled in November, the statue of Summitt stands tall in front of the arena.
At a place like UT that gets carried away with naming buildings and streets and just about anything else after its favorite sons and daughters, there’s one glaring omission after all these years. Not a street or a building in Knoxville carries Joan Cronan’s name, even though she would be the last person in the world to point that out.
Her legacy lives on through less obvious examples, like endowed scholarships for female athletes, state-of-the-art facilities and a women’s athletic department that, for years, was the envy of every program in the country.
“You can’t talk about one without talking about the other,” Michael Strickland, a Tennessee graduate and longtime donor, said of Cronan and Summitt. “Pat and Joan will be forever indelibly linked. They were this unbelievable tandem that achieved greatness — one in front of the camera, one behind it.”