Women’s basketball is the oldest of UT’s women’s intercollegiate sports, having been played at Tennessee in 1903. The women’s program, in fact, predates the men’s program. A team was fielded in 1920, with Mary Ayres Ewell, daughter of the late UT President Brown Ayres, as coach, and in 1921 Katherine Frisby organized a varsity team. Women’s varsity letters in basketball were first awarded in 1920. Basketball and other intercollegiate sports for women were discontinued in 1926. Basketball returned as a Club Sport in 1961.
Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Howard Aldmon announced on August 10, 1973, that the Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics Program would be funded with $20,000—from unrestricted gifts to UT. The funds were to support uniforms, equipment, travel, and coaches in seven sports: basketball, volleyball, tennis, track and field, field hockey, swimming and diving, and gymnastics. Vice Chancellor Aldmon had general responsibility for the program, with implementation through the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Dr. Nancy Lay, associate professor of physical education, was named coordinator of the program. Margaret Hutson, instructor in the Women’s Physical Education Department, was named the basketball coach, a position she had held since 1971, while the team competed through the Club program. She served through 1974 and was followed by graduate student Pat Head (Summitt).
According to Hutson, women’s basketball team members had been limited to 12 because of a shortage of uniforms—and the uniforms were seven or eight years old in 1973, when funds were made available outside the Club Sports rubric. There were no warm-up suits. In 1972, to pay for transportation, the basketball team had sold 500-dozen doughnuts and received a $175 contribution from a parent. Under the new system of institutional allocation of funds, money provided to each sport could be used in the way the coaches and coordinator determined would be the best use of funds, but doughnut sales continued because of lack of funds. In fall 1976, with the establishment of a Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics Department separate from the Women’s Physical Education Department, funding for ten scholarships ($25,000) was provided for women’s athletics. The basketball program received four.
In 1976 the NCAA did not include women’s sports, so basketball and the other six sports included in the new Women’s Athletics Department played in the AIAW. Pat Head Summitt was the coach. The Lady Vols won back-to-back AIAW Region II championships in 1976–77 and 1977–78. In 1978 the team played in the AIAW Final Four, finishing third. In 1979 the team won the first-ever SEC tournament and returned to the AIAW Final Four, finishing as runner-up to Old Dominion. In 1980–81 the team played in its third consecutive AIAW Final Four, finishing runner-up to Louisiana Tech.
The first-ever NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament was held at the conclusion of the 1981–82 season. UT advanced to the Final Four but lost to Louisiana Tech, which went on to win the tournament. Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols would win eight NCAA national titles (three of them back to back) before Summitt stepped down as head coach at the conclusion of the 2011–12 season and was replaced by longtime assistant Holly Warlick. A hallmark of the program is the graduation rate of athletes, with a 100 percent graduation rate for students who complete their four years of eligibility.