Going for the Glory

Gloria Ray strives to bring athletic fame to Knoxville

The year she turned 13, Gloria Ray's family doctor told her it was time to give up football. She suspected his motives.

"I just thought it was because his son was the backup quarterback to me, and if I'd quit he'd get to play first string," she remembers.

But the doctor didn't say she couldn't play tennis, and by the time she graduated from Fulton High in 1965, she'd won a state doubles championship. She also had a chest full of medals for baton twirling.

And once a year she'd play basketball in the annual YWCA tournament. (Knoxville's city school system didn't allow girls' basketball, not even the half-court game customary in those times. Playing basketball was believed by some to scramble female reproductive parts and render girls sterile.)

Some kids thought the Y games were just for fun. Not Gloria Ray, who remembers playing her butt off.

"I always figured if they kept score, it must matter," she says.

The county clerk is keeping score at the March 1996 County Commission meeting, and it matters a lot to Ray, who as president and chief executive officer of the Knoxville Sports Corporation has jumped all the committee hurdles and written up a brief, condensed executive summary explaining that her project "will be the mirror and memory of women's basketball."

She has spoon-fed the commissioners every drop of information they need to understand why Knox County should lend its full faith and credit to the Sports Corporation's quest to bring the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame to Knoxville.

Is she nervous?

"Nah," she says--because she isn't asking to pick the taxpayer's pocket. What she's asking for is for the county to "enhance the credit of the Sports Corporation"--to the tune of the $6.2 million needed to build the Hall of Fame.

The Sports Corporation, a coalition of local government and private businesses, is four years old and works to bring income-generating sporting events to Knoxville. It receives a large chunk of its annual operating budget from Knox County Commission. In return, according to Ray's reckoning, it has brought in $35 million in tourist spending.

A peerless shmoozer, Ray sweetens the dry numbers of her financial projections with a big dose of her considerable charm. She admits to wincing a little recently when Knox County Finance Director Kathy Hamilton told a reporter that the county would be liable for the money if the Sports Corporation isn't able to pay off the $6.2 million. She says she would have put it differently, though she admires Hamilton's candor.

Personal relationships can be the key to success, and she has those aplenty. She is on County Commission's greens committee for the county golf course and serves on the gender equity task force for the county schools.

She is a dark-haired, pug-nosed, fast-moving, joke-cracking spark plug who claims to stand five-foot-four. She is, in common parlance, a pistol. Active in sports at the age of 40-something, she has played golf with many of the commissioners, and she is good. Has she ever been tempted to let one of them beat her so he won't feel badly about getting whipped by a woman?

"That would be disrespectful," she says, somewhat disdainfully. "I don't think I have ever thrown a game. If we're playing golf I'm going to try to beat you."

Frank Leuthold, arguably the most powerful commissioner and chairman of the Finance Committee, can't help but grin when her name is mentioned. They have a long-running private joke about left-handed bowling balls.

She downplays the effects of her ebullient personality on the county legislators. It's mostly a matter of conveying the facts, she says: "Get 'em the right information and they'll make the right decision."

Maybe. But make no mistake: Gloria Ray is a perpetual motion machine who could sell flotation devices to mermaids.

Like any good lobbyist, she has her votes counted and knows she's got way more than the requisite 10, the magic number she needs to keep the deal alive. But she grudgingly admits she's just a little worried. There is one commissioner she can't read.

"I just can't seem to connect with him," she frets. "I just don't knowÊ..."

During the meeting, Ray sits quietly in the audience. She doesn't push. Finally, her deal comes up on the agenda, and wham-bam, thank you ma'am, it's an 18-1 vote her way.

She is uncannily correct in her earlier assessment. The lone dissenting vote is that of Mark Cawood, the commissioner of whom she was unsure.

She hangs around until the next break so she can thank everybody but Cawood for the vote that will allow her to head out to Charlotte armed with the promise that the county will enhance the Sports Corporation's credit. Now she's got the most important piece of the deal, the piece she needed to give her a strong hand in nose-to-nose negotiations with the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame board, which is meeting in the Queen City just before the tip-off of the women's NCAA Final Four.

When she gets back to Knoxville the following week, she'll tackle the task of securing the site: a parcel of land on the east side of downtown near the Hyatt Hotel. Its current owner is mega-rich industrialist Pete DeBusk, whom she'll be taking to breakfast one day soon.

Ray isn't so busy landing the deal that she isn't paying attention to what's on TV. And what's on this last week of March, as far as she and lots of other Knoxvillians are concerned, is the University of Tennessee's women's basketball team, in the process of burning its way through regional playoff opponents and into the Final Four.

The Lady Vols rule.

It's quite natural that she should have more than an average fan's interest in the games. She was there in the beginning, as UT's first women's athletic director, hired away in 1977 from Mississippi College for Women where she coached tennis and basketball. She held the job until 1984, and is commonly credited with laying the foundation for what is now one of the premier women's athletics programs in the country. She has an undergraduate degree from East Tennessee State University, a master's from UT.

It was Ray who long ago named the Lady Volunteers, and it was Ray who persuaded Pat Head, a 22-year-old part-time coach and graduate assistant who'd just about decided to move on to a place where they took women's athletics seriously that Tennessee was fixing to do just that.

"I told Pat, 'You need to stay around and see if things aren't different,'" Ray says. "That's not to say that the people who came before me couldn't have done it, but the university gave me the structure to grow."

Ray counts Pat Head Summitt, who sits on the Sports Corporation's board of directors, as "a dear friend," but she says the relationship was not without its sharp edges. Peculiar things can happen when two fierce competitors take road trips together.

Like the time Ray and Summitt rode together to Sneedville for a banquet in a high school gymnasium and got into an argument over what they'd probably have for dinner. Summitt said ham, Ray said roast beef. The discussion grew so heated that they drew up a chart predicting the whole meal: entree, vegetable, drink and dessert. Their hosts were there to greet them when they arrived, and Ray laughs when she recalls what happened.

"We both jumped out of the car and yelled 'What's for dinner?' They must have thought we hadn't eaten in days."

Though a storied name among fans of women's basketball, Lady Vols isn't a '90s kind of moniker. And Ray, who was women's A.D. from 1977 to 1984, sometimes catches heat for choosing it.

UT women's track coach Dorothy Doolittle, for example, has spurned the name, opting instead to call her team the Tennessee Women's Track Team. Vanderbilt's women's basketball team has dropped Lady from its name, becoming simply the Commodores. The University of Southern California's women's team is called the Women of Troy, rather than the Lady Trojans.

"I have people ask me if the men's team should be called the Gentleman Vols," Ray says. But she believes critics need to understand the context of the times.

"Our credibility was key, and our concern was if we didn't give ourselves a name, someone else was going to do it for us."

She remembers that the late Tom Siler, longtime News-Sentinel sports editor, was encouraging fans to name the team. "Orange Maids," "Volettes" and "Vols Dolls" were a few examples.

She was afraid he was going to run a contest, the results of which could be mortifying.

"If I hadn't come up with Lady Vols, they were going to come up with something else. I felt women's teams needed their own identity, and I think the Lady Vols have stood well through time." (Tennessee wasn't the only venue for this sort of thing. Women at the University of Nebraska were in danger of being dubbed the "Niblets.")

UT was spending $126,000 a year on women's athletics in those days, and women were playing basketball in Alumni Gym at 2 p.m. with nobody watching. When Ray was interviewed for the UT job, there was a plan in place to "improve" things by hiring coaches who would spend 90 percent of their time teaching physical education.

Ray told the search committee that the plan wouldn't cut it. For starters, they needed to spend most of their money on salaries.

She faced stiff resistance from traditional Vols fans who were afraid there was a finite amount of support for team sports, and that boosting women's sports would diminish opportunities for men. There were also those who just plain didn't believe women could play. (These dinosaurs still exist. They quote Bobby Knight, who is on record saying "There are two things that should be done in the dark: sex and women's basketball.")

So Ray, charged with overseeing compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, was forced to walk that thin line between pushing for her program and not offending or threatening men, a task perhaps suited to a majorette/football player.

Pay Pat Head enough to keep her, Ray insisted, and make her a full-time coach.

"The world was beginning to change, and my position was that we needed to be pioneers," she says. "And if you accept a leadership role, you have to be willing to accept the bloody nose that can come with it. Tennessee really became a leader in terms of commitment to women's athletics, funding sources and structure."

By the end of Ray's tenure, the budget for women's athletics was $1.2 million, the women's track team had won a national championship, and Pat Head Summitt was on her way to becoming the John Wooden of women's basketball.

Ray says she enjoys the challenge of breaking uncharted ground more than that of maintaining an empire, and decided it was time to move on. She's never far away, though, and every year she attends a banquet where the year's top player gets the Gloria Ray Leadership Award, something of which she is very proud.

"I get to sit there and listen to what they say about me--it's kind of like attending my own funeral," Ray says.

Buck Vaughan is the Sports Corporation's vice-chairman. He, chairman Bill Stokely and co-vice chairman Hank Bertlekamp form the troika which founded the Sports Corporation and is still the backbone of the board of directors. The organization was born of an abortive effort to bring the '92 Olympic track and field trials here. Knoxville made a credible showing, but lost out to New Orleans.

"It hit me square between the eyes that everybody else involved had some sort of authority," Vaughan says. "We had just raised our funds by getting on the phone and collecting a couple of million in pledges.

"So I got back home, got together with a group. And we decided what we were going to have to do if we wanted in the big leagues was have an organization. Al Treadaway (who heads the convention center) said we needed to look at a sports authority.

"So we decided it ought to be an independent, non-profit organization. We chartered it, opened it up and raised money to fund it for three years. We got to looking for the right person to head it. I always thought the right person was Gloria, who is an aggressive, absolutely excellent businesswoman. That little girl is a ball of fire, and it wouldn't be near the success it is without her."

Inspired by the pioneering efforts that built Indianapolis into a national sports center, these days most every city of any size has a sports corporation. The competition for events is tough, and in this seller's market not every effort pans out. A delegation dispatched to negotiate for the Olympic Festival came home resolved that the price tag was too high. Area fans didn't turn out as anticipated for the USA Track and Field championships, and events like bowling tournaments and regattas don't generate much excitement or revenue.

The AAU Junior Olympics attracted thousands to Knoxville in 1993, and the Sports Corporation had great success with the 1992 US Gymnastics Classics. Phil Savage, who along with his wife Lisa owns and operates the Knoxville Gymnastics Training Center, credits Ray with some incredibly smooth moves in running the event.

"It was a coup de grace," Savage says. "Gloria does things right. For example, compulsory sessions are not generally well attended, but Gloria had the place packed here. The gymnasts walked in and found a gym full of people. Gloria had made it an official school holiday, coordinated all the schools in Knox County, and had kids bussed over in two-hour cycles."

He says Ray also eliminated the chronic problem of coaches bugging score-keepers to keep them constantly updated on their kids' scores.

"She stationed state troopers to guard the computer table. Nobody could come near," Savage says. "It was great. And because of the things she did, Gloria was able to land the USA Championships--one of the most important events in gymnastics, and our best chance to see Olympic caliber kids here in our back door."

The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame would be KSC's first permanent, ongoing project, and the first and only free-standing structure dedicated to the women's game. Ray pitches it as a future focal point for boosters of women's athletics. One paragraph in the executive summary she wrote about the Hall of Fame makes a strong, succinct pitch for locating it here:

"No state is as crazy about girls' and women's basketball as Tennessee. The University of Tennessee has been to NCAA championships 12 times in 20 years, and has won three (make that four) NCAA titles between 1987 and 1991 (make that 1996). There have been two Tennessee Division I teams in the Top 10 all year, four in the Top 50. There are three Tennessee teams in the NCAA Top 10. Furthermore, there has consistently been a Tennessee high school in the Top 25 high school teams in the nation."

Contrary to the natural assumption that her Lady Vols connections were helpful in the Hall of Fame negotiations, Ray says they have been a mixed blessing.

"You've got people sitting on (the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame) board who are coaches, business people, college administrators, an ESPN announcer--and they do not want to see it become the University of Tennessee Hall of Fame," she says.

"I'm not so sure some coaches sitting on that board didn't think it would give Pat an unfair recruiting edge."

Knoxville became a contender for the Hall of Fame rather suddenly. Plans to build it in Jackson, Tenn., stalled out, and the Hall of Fame board had been made an offer by the Naismith Foundation in Springfield, Mass., which proposed to build a "women's wing" onto the structure where the men's hall of fame is housed.

Ray knew the Jackson effort was floundering, and hatched the idea of getting into the hunt for the Hall of Fame when she "became aware they weren't moving at the pace they wanted. I called them out of the blue in October and asked for a meeting with their executive committee."

The committee sneaked into town during the season-opening Tip-Off Classic, and Ray presented them with a Request to Proceed. The whole thing was operating very much on the QT.

"I didn't want anyone to know I was doing it." says Ray. "These people were coming in and out of town and no one knew. We were showing them sites and sharing financial data. I came up with a final presentation to make in Charlotte. There were several days I spent with accountants, and they were not pleasant days."

She says it was not only a matter of the Hall of Fame board choosing Knoxville; the Sports Corporation had requirements of the Hall of Fame board, as well:

All induction dinners, camps, workshops and fund-raisers will be held in Knoxville. The Sports Corporation will have the right to use the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame name for events, and there will be one locally controlled interactive exhibit for young children.

This, says Ray, will broaden the base of participation in the Hall, give kids a sense of ownership, and be a great data-collecting device to boot.

As evidenced by the County Commission vote, the project enjoys widespread community support, and detractors are hard to find. One naysayer, however, is the Halls Shopper, which recently declared that "Ray promotes sporting events that we didn't even know we wanted to see, such as the 'Amazing Anorexic Acrobats from the Amazon' and the 'Nimble Nearly Neurotic Pneumatics from New Zealand.'"

Shopper publisher Sandra Clark suggested that County Commission should have opted to send Ray a valentine instead of voting to guarantee the $6.2 million:

"Roses are red, violets are blue; we wish you good luck, but we'll keep our $6.2."

Ray's parents are Elsie and Bill Ray, and she has a brother, Danny, who now lives in Memphis. In the early years, Elsie was a widow who struggled to make sure her children didn't miss a single opportunity. When Gloria was 12, Elsie and Bill married. Danny was best man, Gloria best woman. She says she couldn't have had a happier home.

The family attended Broadway Baptist Church, and the athletic Gloria channeled her energies into Claudette's Majorettes (led by world-famous UT twirler Claudette Riley).

"It was a neat way to grow up," she says.

She believes that living in her home town has helped with her business relationships. She went to high school with the guy who parks cars in the lot on the corner of Cumberland and Gay. Carolyn Jensen ran the basketball tournaments at the Y. And everybody knows her name at Regas.

When she speaks publicly, which is often, she talks about the power of those relationships.

"It's much easier to do business with friends," she says.

She also speaks with conviction about the special qualities of her home town. One of her favorite stories is about the family of a young gymnast who was here in 1992. They stopped a stranger downtown to ask directions to a Kingston Pike restaurant, and, instead of telling them how to get there, he got in his car and took them.

"That story went all over the country," Ray says. "Where else could that happen?"

As Phil Savage pointed out, the success of the '92 gymnastics event opened the door to something even bigger--the USA Gymnastics National Championships. Ray laughs when she talks about the stops she pulled out get them here, admitting that she took note when one USA Gymnastics official called gymnasts hams who appreciate the kind of attention they got here.

"Lord, we sent country ham to those people," she says. Attached to the ham was the following note: "We'll bring the crowds; you bring the ham. We just hope it's Tennessee country ham."

The down-home ploy worked, and the contracts were signed. But there was a hitch.

"They came back and said 'We're going to have to move that date," Ray says. "This meant we had to move a convention of 15,000 home schoolers, six high school graduations, UT summer school registration and two summer camps.

"So I told them 'No problem.' I believe if people sincerely understand, they'll help."

Then NBC-TV came back with another request.

Could they change the dates again?

Ray called the network.

"'What's the problem?' I asked.

"'The French Open.'

"'Could they move?' "

They couldn't, so Ray had to ask the graduating seniors, the home schoolers, the UT folks and the summer campers to move their events yet again. And they did.

"No other community in the United States that would do that," Ray says.

There's a paperweight on Ray's desk bearing the slogan "If you are not the lead dog the view never changes." Lead Dog is one of her nicknames.

And, not unlike many of Knoxville's top businessmen, she has parlayed a background of participation in sports into a career. Leadership is one of the things she says she has learned from sports, and she cites statistics showing that a majority of successful women have participated in team sports at some time in their lives.

"There are advantages men have in business that come from playing sports," she says. "You don't hate who you are playing. You just want to make sure you're playing better than they are. And you build discipline, self-confidence, sacrifice and hard work."

She has been moved by the "If you let me play sports" Nike television commercial. It shows a series of young girls saying "If you let me play sports ... I will learn what it is to be strong; like myself better; be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer; be more likely to leave a man who beats me; be less likely to get pregnant before I want to..."

"Now," says Ray, "there's a whole new generation of young girls having the same experiences as boys. I was a pioneer. But the little girls playing sports now, they're a different breed."

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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