KNOXVILLE—The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame has been located in downtown Knoxville since 1999, but that wasn’t always the plan.
It was originally slated to be built in Jackson until then-Tennessee women’s athletic director Joan Cronan helped change that decision.
“It was the right place for it to be,” Cronan said. “It went to Jackson because they were playing a lot of NAIA national women’s tournaments and the high school women’s tournament was there, so they thought it was the place to be, but to me, this was the cornerstone.”
Two decades later, Cronan has been enshrined in the building that she helped bring to Knoxville as one of seven members of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. Beth Bass, Nora Lynn Finch, Ticha Penicheiro, Ruth Riley, Carolyn Bush Roddy and Valerie Still composed the rest of the class.
Cronan served as Tennessee’s women’s athletic director from 1983 to 2012. During that span, she was named the Southeast Region Athletic Director of the Year by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in 2004, the Athletic Director of the Year by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators in 2005 and the Women of Achievement Award by the International Women’s Forum in 2009.
Before her time at UT, she spent 10 years as the women’s athletic director at College of Charleston, which was named the No. 1 women’s athletics program in the country by the American Women’s Sports Foundation in 1980.
All those achievements and her time spent at Tennessee helped push women’s athletics forward to reach the point it’s at today.
“I like to think I dream big, but it really is kind of overwhelming,” Cronan said. “Two weekends ago, I’m home and I could watch the women’s golf team on TV and I could watch softball playing. All of that is beyond somebody who started back at the grassroots (of women’s athletics) when we were glad to go play Carson-Newman or Western Carolina. We certainly achieved big.”
Reaching those heights took a large group of people that were passionate about building an elite women’s athletic department, but Cronan wants to avoid pointing out individuals that played a part in getting to the Hall of Fame out of fear of forgetting somebody.
Pat Summitt, the Tennessee legend who coached the women’s basketball program from 1974 to 2012, is the exception to the rule because she played an integral part in shining a spotlight on women’s athletics.
“She will have influenced everybody in the audience whether they were a player, a coach or an athletic director,” Cronan said. “… Pat and I made such a great partnership. She was such a great coach and I loved to promote, and I loved to sell. I wanted to be sure we could sell what she did. It’s been a great journey.
“When I think about that time period, those three decades of trying to build the best women’s program in America, there were so many wonderful memories. It was interesting that every time we came up with something we wanted to do, the first question Pat asked was, ‘Is it good for the game?’ That was important.”
Everything they did together turned out to be good for the women’s basketball, including a push to put the Hall of Fame in Knoxville — a city that’s location on the intersection of I-40 and I-75 makes it within a day’s drive of 60 percent of the nation’s population.
Now, Cronan is associated with the building in more than one way.
“It’s something I never expected,” Cronan said. “On my tombstone, I hope it says that I made a difference. This is kind of part of making a difference, so I’m absolutely thrilled.”