Tennessee softball coach Karen Weekly has joined Girls Inc. of Tennessee Valley as an ambassador “because I know this is something that Pat would have a heart for. And I think Pat is so proud of what Nicky’s doing right now.”
Pat was, of course, Pat Summitt. Nicky is Nicky Anosike, a former Lady Vol basketball player who is now the athletics director for Girls Inc. Weekly is the longest-tenured head coach at Tennessee – just three years ahead of Matt Kredich, who took over the swimming & diving program in 2005 – and is coming off a 2023 season in which the Lady Vols swept the SEC regular season and tourney for the first time in program history and reached the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015.
“I believe in the mission of Girls Inc., which is to inspire strong, smart and bold girls into women,” Weekly said in an interview with Knox TN Today. “That’s very similar to what I try to do as the coach of Lady Vol softball.”
The softball program’s relationship with Girls Inc., which has operations in Knox, Blount and Anderson counties with headquarters in Oak Ridge, started last fall when Anosike reached out to Karen and her now-retired husband, Ralph Weekly, in a story that can be read HERE. The Weeklys were co-head coaches of softball when Anosike played for Summitt. Anosike needed help with softball training, and Karen Weekly agreed to pitch it to her players.
“I’m so proud of our girls, because the opportunity that was presented for us to help with the softball program this fall, their activity was on our off day, which was a Tuesday, so I couldn’t make it mandatory,” Weekly said. “I just offered it up to our team and said, ‘Here’s a chance to give back to the community. Here’s a chance to help some girls who otherwise don’t have the opportunities that you guys have had your whole life. And I’ll leave it in your hands.’ ”
The players created a sign-up process to keep track of who could go when, and each one would text Anosike the day before to confirm arrival.
“I was so impressed with how they got organized right away,” Weekly said. “They were all in. It’s not a short drive from our campus out to their facility in Oak Ridge. But they did it once a week and no complaints and really enjoyed their time out there.”
Anosike was so impressed that she contacted Weekly to tell her how the players responded.
“That just makes my heart proud because we try to teach accountability and communication and to see it play out is everything a coach could want,” Weekly said.
Anosike later asked Weekly to be a public ambassador for the organization, which is led by Executive Director Amanda Ingle and focuses on STEM education, financial literacy, community service, media literacy, personal safety and sports. Girls Inc. started in 1976 as a sports program for girls and expanded to multiple offerings in 2000.
“In order to have a sustainable sports program, you have to kind of have someone who’s influential in the community to bolster the sports program,” Anosike said. “Explaining our mission and explaining how we specifically target girls of color and how we target girls in poverty, she immediately had a heart for it and wanted to help.”
Anosike was hired last August specifically to reinvigorate the sports programs. When she approached Weekly, she underscored how much difference one person could make.
“Nicky expressed that she grew up with people who invested in her in a situation where she didn’t have all the privileges that a lot of our players have,” Weekly said. “If not for those opportunities and mentors and programs like this, Nicky said, ‘I wouldn’t have been where I ended up at Tennessee.’ That inspired me, too. I’m not familiar with a situation like that, but I’ve had players who’ve come through situations like that and needed those programs in order to create opportunities for their future.
“I’m going to lend my name and support to any activities they have and really try to encourage other people to get involved, whether it’s committing their time, their talents, their finances. I think the number one thing they need out there, I toured the facility with Nicky and the executive director, and the number one goal is to build a gymnasium. I think if they have a gym they can offer a basketball program, they can offer volleyball programming, and it can be a multipurpose facility to do so many more things than they’re already doing.”
Weekly has become the elder stateswoman at Tennessee, especially after the retirement in 2012 of Summitt, who would die in 2016 from Alzheimer’s disease. The Weeklys and Summitt were coaching colleagues – and Summitt exemplified why the role extended well off the field of play.
“Pat instilled that in all of us, Pat and Joan Cronan, what it means to be a Lady Vol,” Weekly said. “It means you are going to give back to the community. Joan always says to whom much is given much is expected. That’s one of the first things I ever heard Joan say, when we came up here to coach. And watching Pat and everything she did for this community and what she meant to this community and watching how Pat served all of the other teams, too, we wouldn’t have the program that we have if it wasn’t for Pat’s help.
“When you have a role model like that, it’s not easy to try and follow in her footsteps and nobody can fill the void, but you definitely want to honor her legacy and her memory by trying to do as much as you can.”
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.