UT has been a leader in promoting women’s athletics for more than a century. Since the passing of Title IX in 1972, the university has produced more than nine women’s athletics teams—all of which have thrived in their own respect. From the early days of tennis and rowing to the legendary years of Pat Summitt, here are some interesting and notable moments in the history of women’s sports at UT.
The first women’s athletics teams were instituted at UT as the school adopted rowing and tennis under the direction of Anne Gibson, a member of the women’s physical training staff.
Competitive team sports had become part of the women’s athletic program around 1900, despite reservations that they were too demanding for the “delicate female condition.” The first women’s basketball team in 1903 was a 12-member squad and the first of an eight-season run that ended in 1910.
The women started playing intercollegiate basketball again in 1920, coached by Mary Ayres Ewell—daughter of UT President Brown Ayres, who had passed away the year before.
In 1926 women’s intercollegiate basketball was eliminated. Other women’s sports switched to an intramural format that promoted competition among classes, sororities, and dormitories.
A girls’ rifle team appears in the Volunteer yearbooks as early as 1923, listed with the men’s team in the military section of the yearbook. By 1933, the team had 20 members and was featured in the yearbook under the heading of “Minor Sports” along with cross-country and tennis.
Though cheerleading first began at UT in 1907, it wasn’t until 1938 that women were added to the cheerleading squad.
In 1959, East Tennessee State University sponsored an invitational volleyball tournament, and students in the Physical Education Department asked their instructor, Jean Wells, to take them to the competition. The team won the tournament, bringing a first-place trophy back to Knoxville.
Women’s basketball was reestablished as a club sport in 1961 by Nancy Lay, a graduate student from the University of Richmond. Tennis returned in 1963. From 1963 to 1968, Lay and physical education instructor Jo Hobson coached basketball, volleyball, and tennis without additional compensation.
While there were no athletics scholarships for women, one student-athlete found an exception—in 1964 and 1965, Ann Baker (Furrow) joined the men’s golf team as the first woman to receive a full athletics scholarship at UT.
Joan Cronan took over as head coach of the women’s basketball team in 1968. At the time, the women played in T-shirts and shorts, but Cronan looked to change this. None of the few companies that sold women’s unforms made them in orange. Cronan found white jerseys with orange lettering that her team could wear for home games, but this solution still left them without a home uniform. Home teams weren’t allowed to wear white at the time, so Cronan found a set of Carolina Blue uniforms she liked—and thus the tradition of having light blue on the women’s uniforms began.
Following the passing of Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, the women’s basketball and volleyball teams moved from club to institutional status in 1973.
One of the greatest legacies of men’s or women’s sports began in 1974 when 22-year-old Patricia Head (later Summitt) began coaching basketball. Summitt served as head coach of the women’s basketball team (later named the Lady Vols) for 38 seasons and recorded an astounding overall record of 1,098–208 with eight national championships. She made the UT program known and respected worldwide for its standard of excellence. All 122 Lady Vols under her watch who completed their eligibility at UT earned degrees.
In 1976–77 seven women’s sports at UT—basketball, field hockey, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball—became official intercollegiate teams in the newly established Women’s Athletics Department, which was funded by the university with $120,000 for a staff of 17 and 75 student-athletes.
Field hockey and gymnastics were dropped during 1976-77. Tennessee has since gained women’s teams in golf (1992), rowing (1995), softball (1995), and soccer (1996).
In 1976, the women’s athletics teams were named the Lady Vols by Director of Women’s Athletics Gloria Ray. Before 1976, women’s sports teams at UT were known as the Volettes.
Terry Hull was the first coach of the women’s track team. The two-time alumna was teaching in the Physical Education Department when she took on the job as coach. In 1981 she coached her track team to a national title in the AIAW—UT’s first women’s national championship. Under her leadership, UT won the first four women’s SEC outdoor track championships as well as the first women’s SEC indoor championship.
Lady Vol teams first had their own cheerleaders in 1982 when a squad of four was formed specifically to cheer for women’s athletics teams.
The first volleyball teams at UT played in a gym in the Health, Physical Education, and Recreation Building. In 1992, Alumni Memorial became the team’s home. Volleyball later relocated to Stokely Athletics Center and then once more to Thompson-Boling Arena after the fire marshal placed stringent restrictions on the number of spectators allowed in Stokely.
The dance team program began in 1986 with tryouts for the Volettes, who would perform at men’s basketball games. Sixteen women were chosen from the 66 who turned up for the tryouts.
Intercollegiate women’s rowing was added to UT in 1995, though it had been a club sport since 1975.
In 1997, Chamique Holdsclaw led the Lady Vol basketball team to an NCAA record 39–0 season, 14–0 in the SEC, and a third straight NCAA title. She finished her college career as the SEC and UT all-time leading scorer with 3,025 points and the UT all-time leading rebounder with 1,295 rebounds.
When the Lady Vols played UConn in basketball in 1998, Thompson-Boling Arena filled up with 25,597 fans, setting the record for attendance at a women’s game.
The women’s indoor track and field team won its first national championship in 2005 under head coach JJ Clark. The team won another national championship in 2009.
In 2006, Candace Parker became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament basketball game and to also dunk twice in a single college contest.
Softball player Monica Abbott’s jersey was retired in 2018. One of the most decorated players in the history of college softball, Abbott threw an astonishing 23 no-hitters and six perfect games during her Tennessee career and led the Lady Vols to three consecutive Women’s College World Series appearances (2005–07), with a runner-up finish in 2007.
Thirteen Lady Vols (student-athletes and alumnae) competed in the 2020 Olympics, winning two gold medals, two silver medals, and a bronze.
2023 So Far
UT alumna and former track athlete Bianca Belair became the longest-reigning Black WWE wrestling women’s champion.
Swimmer Mona McSharry set a new SEC record in the 100 breast to finish second in the nation.
Softball coach Karen Weekly notched 1,000 wins in her career at UT.
The Lady Vols trailed Louisiana State University by 17 points in the second quarter of the SEC women’s basketball tournament. They rallied for a historic comeback, crawling out from the deficit to defeat the Tigers 69–67. The comeback was the second largest in SEC tournament history, and it sent the Lady Vols to their 24th SEC championship appearance. They went on to enter the NCAA tournament as the only team to play in the tournament every year since it began in 1982.
Images from Volunteer Yearbooks, digital.lib.utk.edu, courtesy of the University of Tennessee Libraries.