By MICHAEL WHITE
ETSU Associate AD for Communications
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Sept. 6, 2016) – In 72 days, thousands of women’s basketball fans will pour onto the campus of East Tennessee State University to watch the Buccaneers take on the University of Tennessee Lady Vols in Johnson City for the first time since 1981.
No doubt, Nov. 15, 2016 will certainly be a special night.
Yet in the echoes of the cheers that evening, the number 72 will carry an extra special significance. It was in 1972 that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was signed into law. Over the subsequent 40-plus years, opportunities for women emerged through the work of many determined individuals, several of whom were connected directly to the programs both at ETSU and UT.
This group of pioneering women included the late Pat Summitt, whose Hall of Fame coaching career and work at Tennessee served to take the game of women’s basketball to unprecedented levels, as well as former athletic administrators such as Tennessee’s Joan Cronan and ETSU’s Dr. Janice Shelton. Today, women like current ETSU head coach Brittney Ezell and Lady Vols’ head coach Holly Warlick continue to carry on the work of those that came before them – promoting the game and acting as champions for equality.
“We are thrilled with the continually growing support and the constant excitement surrounding ETSU women's basketball,” Ezell said. “Our scheduling serves to better our team, excite our fans and to better the game as a whole. We believe that bringing the Lady Vols to Johnson City is a tremendous tribute to Coach Summitt and a way to further her legacy of growing our wonderful game. We have a responsibility as coaches – as the keepers of the game – to honor the past and to always look to better the future.
“We truly believe that this game will serve both functions as we honor a legend and continue to promote women's basketball in the great state of Tennessee. We have no doubt that the East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina regions will share in our excitement for this monumental moment in ETSU women's basketball history and will join us in the Dome on November 15th."
Cronan began her career as the head coach of women’s basketball at Tennessee in 1968, the same year Shelton came on board at ETSU in the same capacity. Cronan agreed that Summitt would approve of bringing the Lady Vols on the road to take on the Buccaneers.
“Pat and I used to always talk about doing what was good for the game,” Cronan said. “That was not always necessarily what was good for us, but it was about something bigger than just the UT program. We had to look at how we could make the game bigger and better, and the game at ETSU fits into that belief.”
For Shelton and Cronan, the game inside the ETSU/MSHA Athletic Center will carry a special significance – considering where they have personally seen both programs come from. Back in the late 1960s, ETSU’s women hosted the “Volettes” – Tennessee’s name for its women’s programs at the time – and played the game in the basement practice gym located under the main floor at historic Brooks Gym.
When thousands attend the game on Nov. 15 inside the Dome, it will definitely be a different environment.
“That gym was so small you had to put your foot against the wall to inbound the ball,” Shelton recalled. “The only people there were on a walkway with rails that looked over into the gym. Here Joan and I were with both teams right up against the wall. We joked that the women had to slide on the ground when they shot a layup or otherwise they would run into the wall.”
Shelton’s time at ETSU was highlighted by her rise through the ranks of the athletic department’s administration, which ultimately ended with her serving as the program’s director of intercollegiate athletics in the early 1990s. At the time, she was one of only six female athletic directors in the nation at the Division I level, and one of only three women leading athletic programs at schools that fielded a football team.
Her administrative career path began in 1972 when she began a doctorate degree at ETSU and was asked by President Dr. Arthur DeRosier to attend the committee meetings regarding Title IX in Washington, D.C. She said that Dr. DeRosier’s commitment and his decision to send her to the meetings were life-changing.
“Dr. DeRosier was the one that had the foresight to get me more involved in women’s sports as a whole, and he gave me a special opportunity,” Shelton said. “I was able to be there, be part of the committee meetings, and had a voice in rooms with very powerful women and men who were making this happen. It was an amazing experience. When I came back from Washington, Dr. DeRosier asked me to be the women’s athletics director and at that time we had only five sports. It was time to get to work.”
In those years that followed – at ETSU and at other programs across the country – women certainly went to work. At some programs, leaders emerged that would shape the landscape for growth in particular sports. For example, Tennessee’s Summitt was that person for women’s basketball. Along with Cronan, they began setting a new standard for women’s basketball.
Ezell and others like her understand the debt of gratitude they owe to Summitt.
"How do you say thank you to someone who did so much to better the lives of others just by demanding equal opportunities to play,” Ezell said. “It is impossible to sufficiently put into words the impact that Coach Pat Summitt made on the world of sports, not just basketball. She was demanding yet gentle. She was tough skinned yet tender hearted. She transcended. She trail blazed. She coached the athlete and loved the person. Every little girl who ever dribbled a basketball owes a debt of gratitude to Coach Summitt, including me.”
That impact on the game – but more importantly equal rights and opportunity – was witnessed from the beginning by those like Cronan and Shelton. They were there when it was just a dream.
“I’ve always told our coaches to enjoy the journey. To take a season and not just focus on the end,” Cronan said. “I can truly say I’ve enjoyed the journey. Not a lot of people have been fortunate enough to have lived that journey. To see what has happened is just fantastic. We can thank the University of Tennessee for supporting women long before it was cool to do so, and to have had the privilege of working with Pat Summitt over those years was really special.
“I get excited about Title IX because it’s not just about a game – it’s about life. It shows women they can compete in anything. Title IX made a difference not just in getting an opportunity to compete, but also providing a way for women to grow up to be great business leaders and people.”
Beyond just basketball, when it comes to the overall impact of Title IX on the United States, Cronan said she has an easy barometer to measure that influence.
“I get asked a lot about whether Title IX is working or not,” Cronan said. “I don’t have to do research or a study. All I have to do is get on an airplane and sit down next to a male passenger. Usually their first question is whether Pat used to stare at me like everyone else. That answer is yes. But the second comment they make is about describing their own daughters and grand-daughters, and how much they appreciate the sacrifices made since Title IX to provide opportunities for women. They are appreciative.”
When the Bucs and Lady Vols take the floor on Nov. 15, Shelton said it will be a special feeling to be witness to such a huge change over the past 40 years. It will be a long way from that basement game so long ago.
“It quite frankly will be unbelievable and more than a dream come true,” Shelton said. “I will be thinking a lot about Pat and Joan, and all of us over the years. Pat and I knew each other for a long time. When I had the opportunity to work for the NCAA as chair of the basketball rules committee for six years, I would see her and Joan all the time. It will be phenomenal to watch those two programs play against each other in that setting and back on our campus at ETSU.
“We’ve come so far.”