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VIProfile: Joan Cronan

By Gay Lyons

One of the first things you notice about Joan Cronan is her warm smile. The second thing is an air of determination. Cronan traces her determination to an early disappointment that shaped her life and career. At the age of 12 she tried out for Little League baseball and was not allowed to play with the boys. “I knew what I wanted to be when I was 12,” she recalled. “I knew I wanted to be in a business that taught women how to compete.”

Cronan grew up in Opelousas, Louisiana, earned a B.S. in physical education and mathematics and an M.S. in administration and supervision at Louisiana State, was assistant basketball coach and math teacher at Opelousas High School, was basketball, volleyball and tennis coach and professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana and was a basketball coach and professor at the University of Tennessee.

A cold call in 1973 at the College of Charleston, which had no athletics program for women at the time, resulted in her first job as an athletic director. “I walked in and said you need to have women’s athletics,” she said. “I walked out as coach for volleyball, basketball and tennis and as athletic director.”

“I had a 17 month-old child and a one-month old,” she added.

After 10 years at the College of Charleston, Cronan returned to East Tennessee as Women’s Athletic Director, a position she held for almost 30 years. In 2011, she served as Vice-Chancellor and Athletic Director (of all UT sports). She was Consultant and Advisor to the Chancellor and has been Women’s Athletic Director Emeritus since 2014.

Cronan’s book, “Sports is Life with the Volume Turned Up,” advances her philosophy that sports teaches essential lessons about business and life. “You learn a lot of lessons in the course of a two hour game,” she said. “Sports has it all: confidence, communication and competition. Ninety-five percent of women in top executive positions in Fortune 500 companies participated in athletics at some point. I think you’ll see more and more women stepping into those leadership roles.”

Cronan said she enjoyed coaching but knew she wanted to be an athletic director. “I like the big picture,” she said. “I love making a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to help coaches be the best they can be and help athletes be the best they can be.”

“I like the business side of athletics,” she continued. “It was important to me that women’s athletics not be dependent on men’s athletics to support them.”

The University of Tennessee’s support of the Lady Vols was a big draw in Cronan’s return to East Tennessee. “UT said yes to women in athletics before it was cool,” she said. “I didn’t hire Pat [Summitt], but I kept her. Team building is key. You have to know what your team’s supposed to be and focus on that–and get the right people in the right spots.

Cronan is proud of the attendance records set during her tenure as athletic director. ”When we won our first national title, we drove up to the arena and a sign said ‘Women’s Final Four: Sold Out,” she recalled. “A few years ago we hosted and had a national attendance record.”

“One of the things I’m proudest of is that Lady Vols is a national brand and how much people cared about that,” she continued. “It was a brand that stood for excellence–and still does. The signature of our program was students first and then athletes.” By the way, Cronan is responsible for the touch of Carolina blue in the Lady Vols logo and brand. When she was selecting Lady Vols’ uniforms in 1968, she thought the colors “looked pretty together.”

The daughters who were babies when Cronan took her first position as athletic director are grown up with children of their own. Daughter Stacy Bristow lives in Knoxville; daughter Kristy Benner lives in Cincinnati. There are five grandchildren. Cronan’s husband, Tom, whom she describes as her “best friend and biggest cheerleader,” passed away in 2006.

While her primary focus has been athletics, Cronan has been active in many community organizations ranging from the boards of Baptist Hospital and East Tennessee Children’s
Hospital to positions as co-chair of the Dogwood Arts Festival and president of the Executive Women’s Association.

Cronan said she loves Knoxville, describing it as “middle class America at its best.”

“People care,” she said. “And I like the fact that you don’t have to have been born and bred in Knoxville to make a difference.” 

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