A ‘Pollyanna’ convert

In talking to Joan Cronan two weeks ago, something struck me about my conversation with the former Tennessee women’s athletic director:

The interview probably would’ve played out in similar fashion at any point during her three-plus decade career.

At any other point, this observation wouldn’t have enhanced my view of her career, which came to a close last week. Glad she brought up the “Pollyanna” description commonly attached to her because I was as guilty as anyone of seeing her in that vein. I tended to think that she benefited from Pat Summitt and women’s basketball, which overshadowed the other sports not winning enough. I took that approach in an article written about her in 2000 entitled “The Woman in Charge”

I reread that article last week. It began in the aforementioned fashion. But it also proceeded to laud the department’s fund-raising and national reputation: two achievements that now sum up Cronan’s career.

The article quoted Susan Williams, the Lady Vols’ former associate athletic director for development, as saying Cronan dealt with “natural jealousies” within the department regarding women’s basketball.

“I think there was a lot of it when I was there,” Williams said in 2000. “It was wasn’t anything Joan was doing. I think Joan went out of her way to prevent that and balance the budgets.”

In keeping with her nature, Cronan then didn’t think a potentially corrosive undercurrent ran through the program. She thought women’s basketball presented a “positive challenge” to the other sports.

In the 14 years since, volleyball has won SEC championships and been to a Final Four. Soccer also had a run of SEC/NCAA success. And now softball is the program’s powerhouse. The latter two sports were created under Cronan’s watch.

In talking to Cronan’s associates and peers last month, their respect for her is as consistent as Cronan herself. And the fans continue to have their say in the robust attendance figures for basketball and now softball.

In being perpetually optimistic, Cronan was playing to her strengths as an administrator. The quality had some real staying power. Williams thinks the trait will recall Cronan long after she’s left UT.

“I think they’ll miss her a lot more than she will miss them,” Williams said last month. “They don’t know it yet, but they will find that out.”