By: Brian Rice
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In the late 1950s, 12-year-old Joan Cowart walked to the city park that neighbored her home in Opelousas, La., with the intention of making a little league baseball team.
Instead, she left disappointed, without a team uniform but bearing something far more valuable: The drive to make a difference for females in athletics.
A little over five decades later, that same little girl, now Joan Cronan, in the twilight of a career of making a difference for females in athletics, stood at a podium introducing her final coaching hire at the University of Tennessee. Ironically, it wasn’t a new leader of a women’s sport. It was Dave Serrano, Tennessee’s new baseball coach.
Before It Was Cool
With a house that adjoined a park in Opelousas, Joan Cronan’s childhood featured a heavy dose of playing sports. Anything that took place in that park, Cronan was there.
“You know the Barbara Mandrell song that she was country before country was cool?” Cronan asked, referring to Mandrell’s number-one hit “I Was Country when Country Wasn't Cool” from 1981. “Well I was a tomboy before it was cool for women to be in sports.”
And the tomboy wanted to be a part of an organized team playing America’s pastime. But instead of an opportunity, she found a roadblock, something not uncommon for women at the time.
“I went down to try out for little league baseball and a gentleman wouldn’t let me play,” Cronan said. “He offered to let me be the manager, the scorekeeper, the cheerleader and even an assistant coach, but he wouldn’t let me play.”
But the sting of a coach’s rejection planted a seed that day.
“I knew at that time that I wanted to be in the business that helped women to learn to compete,” she said. “I loved competition, and athletics just happened to be my way of competing. Athletics is one of the greatest tools to teach people to compete. At that time, men had lots of opportunities, and women had very few. For me to be in a position to help change that over the last 40 years, what happened has been very special to me.”
Getting It Started
Though she is best known for wearing orange, Cronan is a graduate of LSU, having earned her B.S. in 1966 and her M.S. in 1968, both in physical education. While in Baton Rouge, she met and married fellow LSU student Tom Cronan.
“In 1968, Tom accepted a graduate assistantship to come to Tennessee to work on his doctorate,” Cronan said. “We thought we were coming to Yankee-land, because it was so far north of Louisiana.”
With Tom Cronan pursuing a Doctor of Education in Exercise Physiology, Joan Cronan also found employment at the University, as women’s basketball coach. With Title IX still years away, the interview process for the position was not quite what a prospective coach would endure today.
“I wrote this nice letter to Helen Watson, the head of the P.E. department, and said I would love to teach and I would love to coach women’s basketball,” she said of the application for the post. “To tell you how important that position was, without an interview, she wrote back and hired me. I read the fine print and they paid me $1500 to coach women’s basketball and our budget was $1500, so it was not a high priority. But to be able to be a part of that and to lay some groundwork was very, very special.”
The salary and budget numbers for Cronan’s first team came up from time to time years later in conversations with another coach to hold the position, Pat Summitt.
“I told Coach Summitt that she was greatly overpaid, that I did the job for $1500,” Cronan said before changing her inflection to a spot-on impersonation of the legendary Lady Vol head coach. “She immediately asked ‘How many championships did you win?’”
The next move for the Cronans was to Charleston, S.C., where Dr. Cronan went to work at The Citadel, while Mrs. Cronan taught and coached club sports at College of Charleston. At CofC, she was instrumental in convincing then-President Theodore Stern to formally sponsor women’s athletics. The process of convincing also led to Cronan being appointed as women’s athletics director, and head coach for basketball, tennis and volleyball.
To Whom Much Is Given
The Cronans moved back to East Tennessee in 1983, with Joan Cronan taking over as director of women's athletics at Tennessee.
“The University said ‘yes’ to women before it was cool,” she said, again channeling he line from Mandrell. “I think we had great leadership and a chance to really do our thing. One of the things being a separate department did was to give us that autonomy to succeed.”
And succeed, they did. In 29 years as the leader of the Lady Volunteers, her programs combined to win 10 NCAA Championships, 30 SEC Regular Season Crowns and 25 SEC Tournament Titles. Additionally, the Tennessee Rowing program has won two Conference USA Championships.
The winning model that Cronan has followed comes from a favorite Bible verse. Luke 12:48 says “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked,” (NIV).
“That has been the platform that we have tried to build our program on,” Cronan said after citing the verse. “We’ve given athletes great opportunity and with that comes responsibility and accountability. Remember who you are and who you represent, and I think that has built a real pride in what the Lady Vol program stands for.”
Personally, Cronan was honored by her peers as the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) Athletic Director of the year in 2005. She was appointed to the 2010 NCAA Division I Leadership Council and was selected as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) in 2008-09.
Dr. Tom Cronan stood as a visible and extremely vocal supporter of Tennessee’s athletic programs during his wife’s tenure as AD, usually within shouting distance of an official. Dr. Cronan served as a professor at Maryville College and Carson-Newman College, where he retired in 2004 to begin a public awareness campaign on cancer survivorship and the free resources of support and education available at The Wellness Community around the country after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
He passed away in 2006 after a long battle with the disease.
Leading Tennessee Into The Future
With the departure of men’s athletics director Mike Hamilton in June 2011, Cronan was named interim vice chancellor/director of athletics, a new title to oversee both athletic departments at Tennessee.
As part of the announcement, Cronan also announced that she would not seek the position full-time and would retire as director of women’s athletics in June 2012. Both departments would be combined under the leadership of one person, but Cronan had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the consolidation.
“As we have grown, I think the merging of the departments was inevitable,” Cronan said. “I don’t think that’s a slap at Title IX, the Tennessee program is built on a great foundation and I feel like women’s athletics at Tennessee will continue to be very, very strong.”
Cronan led both departments for just under four months before handing over the reins to Dave Hart. During that time, there was one very important hire to be made at UT, one that brought things full-circle for the little girl that had been denied a spot on that Louisiana little league team years ago.
“The day I was named AD, I was asked at the press conference, because the baseball search had already started, ‘Are you going to hire the baseball coach,’” Cronan said. “I simply answered, ‘Why not?’”
On June 15, 2011, Cronan stood at the podium at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and introduced Dave Serrano as the 24th head baseball coach at the University of Tennessee.
“To have the opportunity to do the search and hire what I think is going to be one of the best coaches at the University of Tennessee was really special for me,” she said.
And what would that coach that denied her the chance to play baseball say about this woman now being in a position to hire a Division I baseball coach?
“I hope by now he would have said ‘Why not?’”