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Opportunity denied spurred Joan Cronan toward a trailblazing career

By Bobby Ardoin
Written for the LSWA

Joan Cronan learned at an early age that a determined effort would be required in order for females to achieve athletic gender equality.

Her introduction to that battle came in her hometown of Opelousas when she once anticipated playing youth league summer baseball along with the boys she knew from school.

Things, however, turned out differently than she had hoped.

Instead the allowing her a chance to play, the coaches for her team had other ideas, asking Cronan, now the athletic director emeritus at the University of Tennessee, to become a team cheerleader or a manager.

That experience became a signature moment for Cronan, who without having the alternative of playing softball, became committed to one day promote women’s athletics when she had the chance.

More than five decades of doing so led to numerous inductions into nationally-recognized Halls of Fame and an array of professional accolades. Cronan will receive a big one from her home state when she is presented the annual Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony June 26 in Natchitoches..

The Dixon Award, voted on by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, recognizes sports administrative figures who play a decisive role as a sports leader and administrator and bring credit to Louisiana on the national and international level. Given since 2005, it rewards the recipient with enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Dixon was pivotal in bringing a National Football League franchise to New Orleans and promoting the construction of the Mercedes Benz Superdome.

During her college coaching and administrative career, Cronan demonstrated much of what Dixon did for Louisiana sports, contributing primarily to elevating the Tennessee women’s athletic program into a nationally-recognized brand and a basketball powerhouse.

Her teamwork with legendary Lady Vols’ basketball coach Pat Summit and other coaches under her guidance produced 10 NCAA titles and 24 Southeastern Conference championships from 1983-2012. It resulted in her being elevated to oversee the entire UT athletic program before her retirement.

That was unimaginable when she was growing up. But the sting of an opportunity denied resulted in her becoming one of the most significant figures in the development of women’s intercollegiate athletics.

“I knew what I wanted to be when I was 12 years old,” she said. “I was a tomboy before it was cool for women to be in sports. I thought I was pretty good. I had beaten all the little boys in the backyard, and the park in Opleousas was right next door. I took my batting glove and wanted to try out, but this nice gentleman wouldn’t let me play.

“I knew at that time I wanted to be in a business that allowed women to compete. I think that’s so important. To be successful, you have to be competitive, and sports is a wonderful way to teach that.”

While coaching several sports and serving as women’s athletic director for 10 years at the College of Charleston, Cronan emerged as a national pacesetter. In 1980, College of Charleston was voted the top women’s athletic program nationally by the American Women’s Sports Foundation. That was a feather in her cap that helped provide the impetus for her move to big time college sports in her return to Tennessee in 1983.

“Tom (her late husband) had gotten his doctorate in exercise physiology at Tennessee and took a job at The Citadel, so we moved and I was looking for a job. This was still the dark ages as far as women’s sports on the college level. I knocked on the door of the president of the College of Charleston and told him, ‘sir, you need women’s athletics.’ I was either a really good negotiator, or a bad one, because I walked out as the women’s athletic director, volleyball coach, basketball coach and tennis coach. Later, we received that wonderful honor and I had the opportunity soon afterward to become women’s athletic director at Tennessee.”

In 2019 Cronan was voted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, following other national honors that included the National Collegiate Athletic Directors Association’s Jim Corbett Award, the Women’s Leader in Sports Award and the inaugural Pat Summit Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated a remarkable, positive influence in college athletics.

Cronan was important in helping obtain funding for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, which is located in Knoxville, where she has lived since 1983.

Now 77 and still extremely active, Cronan is justifiably proud of the growth of women’s sports.

“I dream big, but I’m not sure I ever dreamed as big as we’ve gotten. In 1972 Title IX was passed and it said ‘equal opportunity,’ and that laid the groundwork,” she said.

“Here almost 50 years later and I get asked, ‘Joan, is Title IX working?’ Heck, yes. I get on an airplane and I might be sitting next to someone who finds out I’m athletic director emeritus at the University of Tennessee, I was women’s athletic director, and that grandfather smiles and says, ‘I have a granddaughter who …’ and he goes on to tell me all about the sports she’s playing.

“The opportunities are there now. Parents and grandparents want their girls to have the same experiences in sports that sons have, and that’s happening.”

She forsees continuing progress for girls of all ages.

“As long as we are doing great on the college level, it will help the high school and junior high programs continue to progress.”

Women’s sports have risen thanks significantly to administrators like Cronan who saw the bigger picture, and the importance of marketing the games the girls were finally getting to play.

“We had to develop a product and we have. I never thought we’d be on television as much as we are. The College World Series in softball, their ratings are higher than the College World Series in baseball. We have a great product,” she said. “In fact, (iconic UCLA men’s basketball coach) John Wooden said he liked women’s basketball better than men, because it’s more fundamentally sound.”

While her early years in Opelousas initially influenced her attitude towards supporting women’s athletics, it was also there that Cronan also encountered Anne Hollier, a girls’ high school coaching pioneer who through the years became a mentor and an influential role model.

Cronan was Hollier’s assistant coach when Opelousas High won a 1966 girls state basketball championship.

Later there was the legendary Summit, who possessed the important qualities that enabled the Lady Vols to eight national women’s basketball championships.

“Pat was already there when I came to Tennessee, but we made a great team. I always marveled at how she was able to find different ways to motivate her team to greatness,” Cronan said. “It was a great partnership. Our goals were the same, we had the same passion.

“You couldn’t ask for a better leader. Pat could have done anything she wanted to do – she could have been governor of Tennessee, she could have been president of a major corporation, but she wanted to coach women’s basketball, and nobody has done it better, or ever will.”

Among her current roles, Cronan serves as chairman of the board of the Pat Summit Foundation, raising money for Alzheimer’s disease research and education along with support services to patients, their families and caregivers.

“When she walked in my office and told me about her diagnosis, she already had a vision to use her situation to help others. She told me, ‘Joan, I thought I’d be remembered for winning basketball games, but I hope I’ll be remembered also for making a difference for people with this disease.’ So we started the foundation, and it’s doing good.”

Cronan in 2015 published a book, “Sports Is Life with the Volume Turned Up,” in which she discusses her life in athletics and in several chapters offers suggestions about how to become successful while handling every day experiences.

Louisiana and Tennessee sports writer and Natchitoches native Jimmy Hyams, who co-hosts a popular sports radio talk show in the Knoxville area, said Cronan never seems overwhelmed by what others might see as obstacles.

Hyams points to Cronan’s competitive nature as another element that has helped her achieve what she has needed to do throughout her career.

“Joan is one of the more optimistic people that I’ve ever met. Her glass is not just half full; it’s more like three quarters full. I’ve always known her to be positive, looking on the bright side.

“If I had to describe her, it’s that she has always been a visionary and there’s no doubt that all through her career, she has always fought for women’s athletics.

“Throughout her career, she has served on a lot of NCAA committees and has been an innovative leader. Receiving the Dave Dixon Award certainly fits her profile,” said Hyams.

Cronan, who said she is both surprised and thrilled at being part of the annual induction ceremonies, describes her trip back to Natchitoches as in many ways the completion of her lifelong athletic journey.

“I coached the girls’ basketball, volleyball and tennis teams at Northwestern (State) in 1967-68 while Tom was working on his master’s degree there. It was a wonderful experience. We loved Natchitoches and actually bought a lot on Sibley Lake, planning to come back there after Tom finished his doctoral work at Tennessee.”

Things went so well that the Cronans never made that move back to Natchitoches.

“I am so looking forward to coming back,” she said.

Along with serving on corporate boards, her philanthropy work, lots of speaking engagements including a recent one to the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Cronan has an active family life. Her two daughters have given her five beloved grandchildren. While home in Knoxville, she plays golf frequently and attends UT games in all sports.

The LSHOF induction is her second prominent Bayou State honor. Cronan is In the LSU Alumni Hall of Distinction.

“I graduated from LSU and Louisiana is always going to be my home. Up in Tennessee I always say I’m a Cajun with orange blood. I pull for Tennessee, and I pull for LSU.”

She distinctly remembers the excitement when the NFL awarded the Saints franchise to New Orleans, thanks largely to Dixon. Now, she’s about to join him in the Hall.

“There’s a lot to admire about Dave Dixon and what he did for Louisiana sports and being placed in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in the state where I grew up is just an amazing honor and an award with his name on it is something I will always cherish,” Cronan said. “That 12-year-old girl could never have imagined this day would come.”

LSWAOpportunity denied spurred Joan Cronan toward a trailblazing career