The clock is ticking, and before the University of Tennessee Lady Vols even take the floor, Kelly Sahner, B.A. '91 & M.Ed. '93, is driving the game like a power forward shooting from the three-point line.
Within minutes of her arrival at the basketball arena, Sahner greets the ushers, preps the high school girls who chase out-of-bounds balls, and checks the pressroom for telephones, computer terminals and pizza. She bounces back and forth between the locker room and the sidelines, seeing that there are enough towels and that the chairs are in order. Three minutes to game time, Sahner passes some final words to her boss, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, who is also associate athletic director.
Soon, 8,000 fans will give a standing ovation to the 1996 women's national basketball champions. And Sahner will be one game closer to her goal‹becoming one of the country's few female athletic directors.
Sahner, 29, has called few time-outs since earning her B.A. in communication and her master's in the UB Graduate School of Education. When she came to Knoxville in 1993 to pursue an Ed.D. in sports sociology, she also started volunteering in the women's intercollegiate athletics department, boosting corporate sponsorship of basketball and volleyball. Within two years she was promoted to marketing assistant, which entailed producing television and radio shows on the Lady Vols and promoting a variety of events, including NCAA track and field championships and swimming and diving meets.
When a rival school tried to woo Sahner away with more money and a higher rank, Summitt solidified her loyalty with a newly created job title: director of basketball operations and assistant to the athletic director. As such, Sahner is now responsible for all the details of the daily operation of the team, from travel arrangements and the head coach's daily schedule to the players' study-hall sessions.
Actually, Summitt won Sahner over years ago. As early as third grade, Sahner would remember spending hours shooting baskets on the Long Island cul-de-sac where she grew up, fantasizing that Summitt‹even then a nationally known coach‹would drive by and recruit her.
That was an era when a girl could dream big. Title 9, the federal legislation that prohibited discrimination against women in public education programs, promised to bring equal opportunity to playing fields across the country. And Sahner hungered to play.
"Every sport," she recalls. "Basketball, softball, volleyball, field hockey. I had two older brothers, and my parents always used to say, 'Make sure your sister gets to play.'"
Not that the youngster didn't get along with the girls on the block. "We grew up in a neighborhood with six girls my age, and we were real close. We had a make-believe girls' town, where we could play like we were a secretary or a sheriff. It was fun, but I was the only one from the club who would play sports with the guys."
When she was eight years old, Sahner joined the local Little League team‹even though she took some ribbing for it. "There I was, in my white pants and flowered underwear, and some of the guys would make fun, but there were others who stuck up for me," Sahner says. "It didn't matter to me that I was the only girl. It gave me an experience few of my peers have: I learned how to negotiate and make tough choices, and to do what it takes to win."
Sahner's passion for sports propelled her through her tenure at UB. She was a three-year letter-winner in basketball, despite a knee injury as a sophomore that benched her for a year. The injury gave her a lot of time to think.
"I'd pick up the paper in the morning, and I'd see these big stories about the men's team. Or I'd go to the men's games, and there'd be thousands of people in the stands. And the women would only get 40 people showing up at their games. And I thought, ŚThis is not fair! It's just not equitable. What can I do to help?'"
Sahner devised a promotional game plan that included blanketing the UB campus with flyers and having players barnstorm the dorms to court students to the games.
She also began to devise a new personal game plan for her life in sports, driven by the painful awareness that her injury-plagued body would never carry her to the performance level she demanded of it.
"I saw how people got treated if they weren't a valuable player," Sahner says, "and I couldn't stand not being valued. I realized there must be other roles and other important positions to play. And I wanted to play them."
In her fifth year at UB, Sahner was elected president of the Student Association, managing a $1.8 million budget and a staff of 41. She instituted special athletic events, including the National Girls and Women in Sports Day at UB, which takes place in February and is now the largest celebration of this event in the U.S. She oversaw some of the largest rallies at UB since the 1960s, protesting a proposal to implement an on-site fee for intercampus bus travel. And in 1992, UB recognized her achievements with the first Athletic Advancement for Women Award.
Sahner also won the admiration of the UB coaching staff, including head women's swim coach Dorsi Raynolds. "I want to work for her someday," Raynolds says simply. "She's got passion. That's the key. And she creates momentum."
But unlike some people whose dreams die from inattention to detail, Sahner does plenty of follow-through. No job in an athletic organization seems beneath her. She's stuffed envelopes and schmoozed corporate executives for money to back women's sports. She oversees a $700,000 budget for the Lady Vols, and makes sure the girls on the team have money for meals. She books their motel rooms and their public appearances. She knows the name of every volunteer, usher and stagehand she greets on game day. She carries a voice recorder to keep track of the hundreds of details involved in shepherding a winning team that's on the road 60 days a year. (At press time, the Lady Vols were contenders for the Final Four, with a record of 16-7 for the 1996-97 season.)
"She's an extraordinarily capable and articulate young woman," says Donna Lopiana, director of the Women's Sports Foundation, where Sahner served an internship in 1991. "It's not often you find somebody that young who understands the need for diligence and still has the passion to make things happen."
"It didn't matter to me that I was the only girl. It gave me an experience few of my peers have: I learned how to negotiate and make tough choices, and to do what it takes to win."
Sahner's drive comes partly from a recognition of the benefits that participating in sports brings to women's lives, including increased confidence and self-esteem and improvement in grades and graduation rates‹not to mention reduced risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Her goal of becoming a women's athletic director would be quite an achievement. Fewer than 10 women now head NCAA athletic programs.
Sitting in the Lady Vols locker room, near a sign that urges "Play like a champion today," Sahner admits that she lives vicariously through the winning team. But she has her mind set on a larger victory.
"If I can't be the best athlete," Sahner vows, "I can be the best athletic director." She gestures to the victories and awards that mark the walls. "This is something I want every little girl to see. This is something that could happen in every girl's life."