- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On January 3, 2023
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- athletics, basketball, coaching, leadership, motivation, Pat Summitt, success, women in leadership
Joan Cronan, University of Tennessee Women’s Athletic Director Emeritus and Pat Summitt Leadership Group Advisory Board Chairman, talks about being a tennis champion and a pioneer in women’s athletics, repeating the mantra of “left foot, right foot, breathe”, discusses her friendship with Pat Summitt, the inception of the “Definite Dozen”, the ongoing work of the Pat Summitt Leadership Group and Foundation, and the true meaning of legacy, plus shares Jerry Jones’ definition of a leader, and asks the question “Is Title IX still working 50 years later?”
Under the vision and direction of Joan Cronan, the University of Tennessee Lady Vols garnered a reputation as one of the most visible and respected programs throughout the nation. UT’s success in both the athletic and academic realms spoke volumes about her decision-making and leadership ability.
A history-maker and member of several halls of fame, Cronan holds the distinction of becoming the first female athletics director for the entire department at UT when she served as Interim Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director in 2011.
Tennessee’s volleyball program now trains in the beautiful Joan Cronan Volleyball Center, which opened in 2014 and is accessed via a campus road named Joan Cronan Way. After all, it was during her AD tenure that UT expanded its women’s athletic program from seven to 11 sports with the additions of golf, rowing, soccer and softball. She also instituted a fruitful endowment scholarship program on the women’s side.
Cronan grew up in Opelousas, La., but she quickly became a Cajun with orange blood when she arrived in Knoxville in 1968 to teach at the University of Tennessee and coach women’s basketball. After serving as a coach, professor and athletics director at the College of Charleston from 1973-83, she and her family returned to East Tennessee in 1983 and made Knoxville their permanent home. Taking over as women’s athletics director at Tennessee in 1983, she gradually expanded the program from seven to 11 sports, and helped the department increase annual giving from $75,000 to more than $2 million per year. Cronan introduced events such as the recurring Salute to Excellence fundraising dinner, and dozens of women’s scholarships were endowed during her tenure. She also transformed UT’s women’s athletic facilities, overseeing the construction of several state-of-the-art venues.
When Cronan was initially handed the reins on Rocky Top, she was the only female AD at annual SEC meetings, providing a unique perspective during discussions on governance, media rights, compliance and myriad other topics that shaped the collegiate landscape for nearly three decades. During her 29-year tenure, Tennessee women’s teams won 10 NCAA Championships, 22 SEC regular season titles and 33 league tourney trophies, finishing first or second in the SEC All-Sports Award race six times. Tennessee women’s teams logged 78 top-10 finishes under her leadership, including 41 top-five finishes.
Cronan teamed with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt to transform the Lady Vols brand into the worldwide standard bearer and vanguard of excellence in women’s athletics. Together, the duo led the Lady Vols basketball program to eight national championships. Cronan was one of the first women to serve on the NCAA’s Executive Committee and Management Council, and in 2008, she became just the fourth woman to be named president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), serving in 2008-09.
Her personal record of service throughout the athletics landscape is extensive. Cronan is a former president of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) and was named its AD of the Year in 2005. She also served on NCAA’s Championship Cabinet and Leadership Council.
Once a nationally ranked doubles tennis player, Cronan is a two-time graduate of LSU. She earned her B.S. in 1966 and her M.S. in 1968, both in physical education. In 1995, she was inducted into the LSU Alumni Hall of Distinction. Cronan is a member of 9 Halls of Fame and numerous other distinctions. She and her husband, Tom, raised two daughters—Kristi and Stacey—and have five grandchildren.
Cronan is the author of “Sport Is Life with the Volume Turned Up: Lessons Learned That Apply to Business and Life”, published in 2015, as well as a professional speaker.
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(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Intro: On today’s episode, we speak with Joan Cronan, speaker, author, and University of Tennessee Women’s Athletic Director Emeritus, who led alongside the legendary Coach Pat Summit with 10 NCAA titles and 24 S E C tournament championships during her tenure. She is now the board chairman of the Pat Summitt Leadership Group where she works to carry on Pat’s mission and legacy and pave the way for a new generation of female athletes. We hope you enjoy.
Adam Outland: You know, it’s funny, we’ll start off. Both my parents are, are UT graduates actually.
Joan Cronan: Great. Yeah. I love people with orange.
Adam Outland: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. I love it. I, I know we’ve got such a, a story career. We’ll, we’ll talk a little bit about your relationship with Pat Summit as well, but I really do enjoy talking a little bit about the foundation that helped you pursue the career and the path in life that you did. And I know you actually started in athletics yourself as a tennis player.
Joan Cronan: Tennis would be my sport of choice. Uh, but my, my career in wanting to make a difference in women’s athletics actually started when I was 12. I grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana, Cajun country all the way. And I, you know, Barbara Mandrell song that she was country before, it was cool to be country.
Well, I was the tomboy before it was cool for women to be in sports and I tried out for little league. I was excited. I put my pat on my bat and man at City Park wouldn’t let me play. And he offered to let me be a manager. He offered to let me be a scorekeeper, a cheerleader, but he wouldn’t let me play.
And you know, Adam, I knew I was as good as little boys on the field and I thought, that’s not fair. and at that time I knew I wanted to be in a business that helped women learn to compete.
Adam Outland: Hmm. Was it then that just naturally out of all the sports that you could play, tennis is what grew out of your time there?
Joan Cronan: Well, in, in high school we didn’t have any sports. We only had basketball and volleyball. I played those. I was a pretty good basketball. I’m an awful volleyball player, but my home connected to City Park where the tennis sports were and I always won the city championship, so it was, I like to win. So tennis was the sport that I, I picked, you know, I’m fortunate enough to be in the Hall of Champions at LSU Hall of Fame and people say, well, Joan, you’re in the Hall of Fame at lsu.
Adam Outland: What sports did you play?
Joan Cronan: Well, they didn’t have sports for women. I was intermural ping pong and tennis championship, and that’s where we. My mom and dad were absolutely wonderful. They, they were not athletic. They didn’t understand sports, but they knew I loved it, and they always told me I could do anything I wanted to do.
And then as I progressed, I was a. Fortunate enough to marry a, uh, wonderful gentleman who thought that I could do anything I wanted to do, and he really was my rock as far as supporting me and believing in what we did. I, I felt like we were a team. He was a exercise physiologist. He was an athlete. Ran track at l.
But loved women’s sports also. So we, we did this journey together and I will never forget the first game that I was athletic director at the University of Tennessee. We had won. And I came home and I was all excited and Tom said, well, you know, I think you ought to tell Pat that she could do this and this and changed this play.
And I said, honey, I’m gonna do a lot of things in my. But telling Pat Summit how to coach is not it.
Adam Outland: You know, I think that a lot of what you’ve done has set the tone for, for sports, for women across the, the whole country. Um, because Title IX is, is sometimes the reason we can have more of those, uh, female sports.
Joan Cronan: I never thought we needed a law to do what was right. But athletics was such a male dominated area that we did need a law, and I thought Title IX came around long at a great time for me. I, uh, somebody said, do you remember when Title IX was signed? And I said, absolutely. I’d been to Washington meeting with senators and representatives, but the actual date, the Title nine was, My daughter was born on July the second, 1972.
And so I was really concerned about labor rather than the signing of, of Title ix. So, but I think as we progressed, it was such an impact and to be able to be celebrating 50 years of Title ix, it’s been so exciting and it’s been such a journey and, uh, you know, Tennessee has, was been so supportive they said.
To women before it was cool to say yes to women. So, uh, I am a Cajun, but I do have orange blood.
Adam Outland: There’s quite a bit of people skills required, I feel like in the role of being an athletic director, because almost all of what you can do is, from my understanding, through influence, not direct control, right. Influence with the system and the school itself influence with the coaches. So tell me if I’m wrong.
Joan Cronan: No, that, that’s a great analogy. You know, I always thought of. I thought of an athletic director as a person of influence, but a person. My job basically, in simple words, was to make the coach’s job the best it could be to make the athletes experience the best it could be, and in doing that, teach a lot of lessons and represent the university well.
Spent a lot of time raising money. Spent a lot of time selling the program. I always told the staff if they saw me sitting behind my desk three days in a row, I wasn’t doing my job. What? My job was to create an influence to create people who were interested. In what we were doing. I, uh, I heard Jerry Jones say one time that, uh, the definition of a leader, and there’s a lot of definitions of a leader, but he said the definition of a leader was a person with a vision and had a sphere of influence to make it happen.
So my job as an athletic director was have that sphere of influence. Be sure the president cared about what we are doing. Be sure the governor knew what was happening to be sure that the best donors wanted to be involved with what we were doing. Such good advice, Adam. If I had been president of Westinghouse, my product would’ve been a washing machine, but as athletic director, my product was women that went through athletics and got that experience.
And went on to be successful in life. I wrote a book that’s called Sport is Life with the Volume turned up, and I think what you learn in sport is so, so important.
Adam Outland: Yeah, you talked about fundraising and just real quick, because I know there’s, there’s folks on, on this podcast that a big, big part of their role is also doing that coming up through sports. There’s not a lot of just training on how to raise money. I feel like you’ve gotta learn it as you go, which sounds like that’ll be part of the epitaph one day that you’ll have on your, you’ve learned a lot as you went.
Joan Cronan: Absolutely. You know, and there weren’t, there weren’t many women role. I used to tell Coach Dickey, Doug Dickey, who was our men’s athletic director, and I told him, you raise money out of the seat of your pants.
If you wanna sit here. This is what you pay. When you think about big time college athletics. A lot of their financing comes from incentives to have good seats. In our case, I had to raise money out of the horn. You know, I, we had plenty of seats, so I wanted to, I wanted people to really underst. Who we were.
But you know, to be successful, you have to surround yourself with really good people. And some of the administrators that I was able to surround myself with were really good. And I tried to just guide them and get out of their way and say, let, let’s do it. But I always felt like I wanted to be an asset.
I wanted women’s athletics to be an asset to the university. Not somebody that always had their hand out and said, you have to do.
Adam Outland: Mm. You know, you, you did raise a tremendous amount, which then helped support a lot of the facilities for, for the women at UT and from the outside end. You know, when we talk about you, we talk about Pat Summit and that winning track that, that you had for all of those years from the outside end. It, it could just look like, oh, they, they never had any, uh, roadblocks or challenges. It was just sailing all those years. I always wanna know from, from your perspective, what were some of those moments? A little bit of doubt creeped in. What were some of those moments that you had during your tenure where you really encountered some roadblocks or some challenges?
Joan Cronan: You know, one of, uh, Pat’s definite dozen, which I absolutely loved, was left foot, right foot, breathe. And sometimes, and as we got to these hurdles, I had to say, left foot, right foot, breathe. We’re gonna get through. But, you know, we had such a great product and, uh, we had people were that were interested. The other one of definite a dozen is that you have gotta work hard.
You know, I’m gonna try to outwork you and be, be the one that’s there. And, uh, you know, we would go places and people would say, I, you know, I can’t believe y’all are average in 16,000 people at a women’s basketball. I said, you don’t know how many chicken dinners Pat and I have spoke at to promote what we’re doing.
Never turned down an opportunity to sell our product. And that was what one of the things that I loved being, having a partnership with Pat, is she was willing to do that. You have some coaches that think the only thing they’re supposed to do is be on the basketball court, but Pat understood the big picture.
I understood the big picture. We were doing more than just playing basketball.
Adam Outland: For everyone that, that isn’t as familiar with the whole history on that side. When you came over from, it was at Charleston, that when you transferred back over to University of Tennessee? Absolutely. Prior to Charleston, you were the basketball coach at University of Tennessee Brief for, for a few years, is that right?
Joan Cronan: Absolutely. Yeah. The, it was really at the beginning of time and, uh, and we, I was a basketball coach and we had been, they had been a club team before and played two games the season before, so. Got to start their program. But you know, I, I always knew that my strengths were not in coaching, but they were in the bigger picture.
I like the bigger picture, but at that time, most athletic directors had had experience coaching. Let me tell you a little story about the College of Charleston, which is unique. I told you my daughter was born in 1972 and we signed title. We also moved to Charleston two weeks later for my husband. Time to take a job at the Citadel, and I had a two week old and a 19 month old.
So life was pretty crazy and busy, but I still had this passion that I wanted to have women’s athletics. So I made a cold call to the President of the College of Charleston and I said, sir, you need to have women’s athletics. They just passed a law. It’s time that we do something. And I was either a really good negotiator or really bad one, I’m not sure, but I walked out of his office.
Volleyball coach, basketball coach, tennis coach and ad. And fast forward 10 years, fortunately I was able to surround myself with some great people and we were, um, named the number one program in America at that level by Women’s Sports Foundation. So that was, that was pretty special. That’s extraordinary.
And then Tennessee came knocking on our door and said, would you come back as athletic director? And of course that’s what we did. I love it. And Pat and I’s partnership went back to, we were at both recruiting the same girl in Charleston at the time, and she came in town to recruit her. We went to lunch and she said, Joan, the ad’s job at Tennessee is coming open.
Would you consider applying? And so she actually recruited me to go back to Tennessee. So that’s, that’s. Where our partnership in trying to build an athletic program at Tennessee, and she helped me so much, not only in doing what she did in basketball, but she, she was such a good person with all the other sports.
She took the time to meet with other coaches. She took the time. Many of our fans on, on the podcast for, remember Monica Abbott, one of the best pitchers ever in softball. Well, I can remember Pat meeting with Monica. Convincing her that she needed to come and help us start a softball team. So Pat was instrumental in that partnership in so many ways.
Adam Outland: It reminds me so much of, you know, when you, when you read these books, like some of the ones Phil Jackson wrote it almost always in a, in a championship series. Right? Not just a one off victory. Seems like the, the team aspect goes all the way up through administration. Absolutely. It, it just seems like it’s not always so common to have it go all the way through administration.
Joan Cronan: Well it, you know, I think part of it was we all worked together and we had a dream. ESPN walked in my office one day and said, why are the lady balls so successful? We have the right people to make it happen. Never took it for granted. Hard work was there. But we needed everybody support to go forward.
Adam Outland: In the work with Pat, when did that definite dozen come about? When was that articulated?
Joan Cronan: Probably about Midway. Uh, Sally Jenkins, who is a wonderful sports columnist and a good friend, wanted to write a book about Pat, and we had been preaching those things, but she said, let’s sit down and write what, what is your philosophy and why?
And that’s what, uh, how we. And Pat and Sally worked really hard on that definite dozen, and it, and it’s been a, a cornerstone. It’s so well done. And you know, my, my goal is that Pat’s definite dozen and John Wood’s pyramid are the Bible of people in sports. That these are the things that good coaches, good athletic directors, great athletes need to know.
Adam Outland: We talk about what motivates people quite often and for a lot of people out. Motivations can be quite simple and maybe surface level what they can buy or have by the end of the year. But some of the folks who really seem to make the biggest change, that motivator tends to be legacy and something that’s what they’re gonna be, uh, leaving behind.
Even when they complete their time. And I know Pat Summit, uh, isn’t with us today, but you think of the legacy that the two of you and, and really that that. That you all put together, created and we now have the PAT Summit Leadership Group and a, a foundation. Is that right?
Joan Cronan: That’s exactly right. The Pat Summit Leadership Group is so special because our job is to promote that legacy of PAT and, and just like I said, I want the definite dozen and the pyramid to be the cornerstone of what, what we’re doing.
The Pat Summit Foundation, which I’m chairman. Is, uh, designed to when Pat was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she walked into my office and we thought, we knew she was struggling, but we all thought it was from the medication for arthritis. She was having some trouble and she looked me straight in the eye and she said, Joan, I’ve just been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s strand, early stages, and I had never dealt with anyone with Alzheimer’s and early stages.
I was thinking cancer and we, we can cure this. And so I said, well Pat, you know, that’s good. It’s early stages. And she said, no, early stages means I’m young and it progresses faster. Mm. And then I said, well, we’re gonna say you have dementia cuz that’s seems to be more acceptable. And we we’re gonna go and, and battle this.
And she looked at me again and she said, no, we’re gonna say exactly what I have. I have dementia, Alzheimer’s strand, early stages. And then she said something that’s been really significant in my life to follow her death was I want to form a foundation and I want this foundation to focus on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and helping with the caregivers.
And that’s what the foundation has continued to do over the last five years. We have a Pat Summit Clinic at the University of Tenancy Hospital. Renowned for its research and its treatment of patients. We’re getting ready to write a book that’s gonna be that summit’s game plan, and it’s gonna be designed to help caregivers in how they have to deal with that disease.
So it’s, it’s an exciting time. And you said it so well to develop a legacy. You know, I, I don’t want Pat’s legacy. To just be a disease. So we need the Pat Summit Leadership Group to show what a leader she was. She also wanted us to, to find a cure. So we’re going about it as best we can.
Adam Outland: It’s really incredible. I mean, many people have successful careers and lives and, uh, what I think you’ve accomplished and Pat is difficult to do, which is, you know, have a life of, of success, which in the sports world means, uh, winning championships, . Yeah. Right. But I think it’s so important when people choose to play a bigger game, and, uh, I, I always like to ask guests this, but when you hear the word success, how do you define.
Joan Cronan: That’s a great question. Yes, we won eight national championships and that’s unbelievable that we could do that. But what the most important factor if you talk about winning in success is we went to 18 Final Fours, coach’s Dream in Ad’s. Dream about going to one final. We had the privilege of going to 18 and winning eight of ’em.
So that’s, that’s success cuz it’s, it’s not just one event, but I define success personally and, and professionally as making a difference in young people’s lives. Luke 1248 says, to who much is given, much is required. I feel so blessed and, but I, and I want to give back. So I think that’s, Is fun about doing the things we’re getting to do.
Adam Outland: Well, I think we’ll have hopefully a lot of young women listening to this episode. And what little advice might you give to a young starting athlete? Maybe someone who’s in high school, uh, earlier in their career? What are a couple of pieces of wisdom?
Joan Cronan: We just did a program, uh, for all of the female athletes at the University of Tennessee and Bonita Fitzgerald, who has been a very successful female entrepreneur, president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, gold Medalist Olympian, and the hurdles, and she said something to all, all of our athletes.
She said, you know, one day I was sitting in the middle of Tom Black Track and had a great workout. I was working with my coaches, Tennessee had given me an opportunity. Go to school my fifth year where I could get my engineering degree and the Olympics were coming up and she said, I sat there and I thought, why not me?
Why not me? Why can’t I be the one that wins the gold medal? And she did it and went on. So I think you have to believe in yourself, and I think you have to be prepared. As you go forward, you just, just can’t wake up one morning and say, I’m gonna be success. You gotta work hard at being prepared and surround yourself with great people.
But I think that, that, that’s really important to think why not me? I love that. You know, Adam, I, I do a good bit of public speaking and one of the things that I talk about is people who don’t need last names and why. And, uh, being in Tennessee, I use Dolly Forton. Yeah. And, uh, you know, Dolly’s a great actress, a great singer, but she gives back and that’s why people love her.
And, and she is so adored and she doesn’t need her last. The other person that’ll in Tennessee that we all love and doesn’t need a last name is Peyton. You know, and Peyton was a great quarterback and a great athlete, but you know why he was successful? He had the most attention to detail of anybody I had ever worked with.
Hmm. He what? Probably watched more film, but you would not believe the detail. Then of course we have the name Pat and you don’t have to say Pat. You don’t have to say. And in the sports world, if you say Pat, most people are gonna, the first thing they’re gonna think of is Pat Summit. And we all know she won the eight championships, went to all the final fours, and very successful.
But you know what? People love Pat. She was probably the most humble person I’ve ever worked with. The night of her celebration of life, 96% of the athletes that she had coached over four decades. Came back and I told them two things. The one things that she would be most proud of is that every young lady that she coached got a degree.
Every young lady that she coached for four years got their degree. And then number two, that they needed to remember that they would never meet anybody that had won more awards, more and more success, but they also wouldn’t meet anybody that was more humble. Pat Summit, if you think about giving back, you think about attention to detail and being prepared and you think about being humble.
What else could we ask for?
Adam Outland: Such good wisdom. You know, just as a real basic, uh, question, but what’s a book that you’ve read and maybe it’s recent on leadership or something that, where it’s helped you with the, the work that you’ve done as an ad, as a coach, that that’s had particular influence?
Joan Cronan: I’m a book on tape person. I’m always listening to a book on tape. So podcasts are wonderful for me. And, uh, but you know, I love all John Maxwell’s books, obviously, and he’s, I had him come in and, and speak to our, our, our athletes a lot. And I, and that was really special. But you know, my answer would be, uh, don’t just read one.
Adam Outland: This has been a really wonderful interview, Jan. Appreciate you making time to be on with us and share your wisdom and a little bit of Pat’s wisdom too.
Joan Cronan: Well, you know, I, I, you talked about Title ix, you know, and what, what my goals are is having opportunities for women and, and being successful.
Being the 50 years of Title IX and, and talking about leadership in women’s sports, I think about is Title IX working? You know, that was 50 years ago. Is it really working? And I don’t, even though I majored in math at lsu, I don’t have to do a statistical report and figure out all the stats. You know, all I have to do is get on an airplane.
If I get on an airplane and I sit next to a couple and I say, I’m John Proton, I’m athletic director in me at University of Tennessee. And if they smile, the next thing outta their mouth are, I have a. Or I have a granddaughter who, and they go on to describe the athletic ability of their daughter or granddaughter, when moms and dads want the same opportunities for their daughters and their granddaughters as they do for their sons and grandsons, title IX is working.
And I think that’s happening. And I love to think that Pat and I were a part of making that.
Adam Outland: We really appreciate the legacy that you guys are leaving. Thank you so much, Joan. Appreciate you a ton.
Joan Cronan: I appreciate it. Thank you. Call me when you need me.