Commentary

Yow's considerable efforts will live on

Originally Published: January 24, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

There's a picture of little Kay Yow with her parents. Dad is dressed in a sailor uniform; his oldest of four children, Kay, estimated she was about 6 years old then. That would have put it a few years after World War II.

The framed photograph sits in her Raleigh, N.C., office with so much other history. Actually, it might continue to sit there for some time. How long will it take before someone moves to clean out that office? Who will ever have the heart to do it?

[+] EnlargeKay Yow
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainIn 2007, Kay Yow led NC State to its 11th Sweet 16 appearance.

Maybe it won't be "cleaned out." Maybe it will remain unoccupied, like a shrine. Or maybe the next coach of the North Carolina State women's basketball program will keep many things just as they are.

Then again, how can anything ever be the same for the Wolfpack? Yow coached this program for 34 seasons -- from the birth of modern-day women's college basketball to a time when fans now expect to see several televised games a week.

The loss of Yow, who went the distance in a knock-down, drag-out war with cancer before passing away Saturday at age 66, leaves not just NC State but also women's athletics with a permanent void.

Who else was this successful at this high a level while always being universally liked? Who else inspired only admiration and never ire in her foes? Even her fiercest adversary -- Cancer, with the capital C -- would have expressed boundless admiration, were it an entity that could speak.

Cancer first showed up in 1987 and took part of Yow's body. Then, in 1993, it took her mother, Lib, and her good friend, fellow NC State coach Jim Valvano. Cancer took new pals she met as she comforted fellow warriors with the disease, which returned to her in 2004 and again in 2007. Cancer took her appetite, her cherished high energy, her restful sleep, her mornings and afternoons on the golf course. It took away any thoughts of a quiet, relaxing time beyond basketball.

Cancer took and took and took -- yet there was always Kay Yow with something more to give to everyone around her.

That photograph … it lingers with you … the little girl with her parents, small-town North Carolina people from what has been dubbed "the greatest generation." Raised by them -- a man who was a machinist and a woman who ran a beauty salon -- Yow was molded by the values and ethics of that generation. The one that fought a war and built the machines to fight it, that accepted food rations and believed you deserved no more than what you worked to earn.

She was good enough, wise enough, humble enough, brave enough, decent enough to have been part of that generation herself. So you could have understood if Yow had been old-school and hard to please, if she had looked upon "kids" through each passing decade with narrowing eyes -- as if they became softer, weaker and more disappointing as the years went by.

Except … she saw no such thing. To her, kids were always basically good, no matter when or where they were born. They just needed a guiding hand in their lives. And it didn't have to be an iron hand. It never was with Yow.

There's a story her longtime colleague and friend, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, tells of when Yow was her assistant for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

"I had two players from Tennessee on that team in Lea Henry and Cindy Noble," Summitt said. "And I yelled at them constantly because I knew I could and they could take it.

"One day, we were walking back from our practice gym and Kay said, very calmly and quietly, 'Well, you know, Pat, I just wonder if you've really thought about how much more that Cindy Noble and Lea Henry are going to learn from you.'

"Then she said, 'I think they're both trying really hard and they both want to please you, but how much more do you think they can possibly do?' I remember shaking my head and saying, 'Good point.' And I backed off both of them. She was right. She made me a better coach just in subtle ways, in things she'd say to me."


Yow won 737 games in college … yet didn't grow up ever expecting to be a coach. Born in 1942, she received a basketball from her parents when she was about the age she was in the aforementioned photo.

[+] EnlargeKay Yow
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesKay Yow was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, but it returned in 2004 and then caused her to miss 16 games in 2006-07. Exhaustion forced her to step away from the Wolfpack this season on Jan. 6.

Growing up in Gibsonville, N.C., she was a child of few needs. She had her ball, a hoop in the backyard and time. She was very happy.

Women's college basketball as we know it today didn't exist then. In fact, in many places there was not even high school basketball for girls. Generally, what was true in North Carolina was true across the country: Girls' basketball had been fairly prevalent in many places in the 1930s and into the 1940s. Yow's mother and aunts had played it not just in high school but also in the industrial leagues that were among the very few semi-organized athletic outlets for women.

But there was a backlash to the gains made by women during World War II, and it subsequently affected even girls' athletics. In Yow's youth, girls' basketball became a patchwork endeavor that survived in the 1950s and '60s in many smaller communities but generally not in larger ones.

In retrospect, theories developed about why it happened that way. Such as that girls in smaller towns or schools often were from farms or were the daughters of blue-collar workers. They were girls used to physical labor, so their competence at athletic tasks seemed just a part of the overall fabric of their lives.

Also, smaller places had fewer residents of which to boast, fewer to feel proud of, to hold up as examples. Girls, you might say, could matter more in small towns.

Kay Yow mattered. She once scored 52 points in a high school game, and the coach of the boys' and girls' teams at Gibsonville then predicted something that seemed preposterous when Yow was just a prep junior. He said she'd make history in the sport of basketball.

How could he have known then? How could he have seen what was coming?

Yow herself didn't see it. She went to college at East Carolina, which didn't have a women's basketball program, got an English degree and prepared to make her living as a teacher. She got a job at Allen Jay High School in High Point but also agreed to the principal's request that she coach the girls' basketball team.

However, Yow thought she knew nothing about how to coach. So she studied. She learned on the fly. She followed her instincts. And when she won a championship …

Well, that's one of the bittersweet, funny stories she told, the wry way she could look back at those times. Yow recalled that while she was celebrating with her team, a school official ran toward her -- not to join in but to give a somber reminder: She'd better be sure, in all the excitement, not to forget any of the towels the school had provided the team to bring to the game.

Those things cost money, you know.


Yow continued coaching high school until getting her master's degree at UNC Greensboro, then took over the college program at Elon. Her sisters, Debbie and Susan, played for her.

Kay Yow
AP Photo/North Carolina State UniversityKay Yow, center, and her 737 career victories rank sixth all-time among Division I women's basketball coaches.

Title IX was signed into law in 1972, but most colleges waited a few years to see if they were really going to have to pay attention to it. Once it appeared they did need to, they began looking for people to build women's sports programs, often from scratch or close to it.

NC State had sponsored women's basketball one year before bringing in Yow, starting in the 1975-76 season, on the recommendation of a sports editor from Greensboro.

Years later, Yow told the newspaper that has chronicled her career most closely -- The News & Observer in Raleigh -- that the job at NC State didn't pay much but did include a car, which meant she could give her old VW to her very pleased mother, who needed it.

Those who were Yow's contemporaries -- such as former Maryland coach Chris Weller -- never lost sight of how it was in those critical years in the 1970s, when women's college athletics really began to germinate. They never forgot driving vans to games and not being sure whether they'd have enough money to pay for their team's meals and lodging. But it was all worth the inconveniences and uncertainties. They were small compared with the large possibilities.

As Yow once put it, "If a person really has a grateful heart, the door can open wide for so many good things to come your way."

Women like Yow always remembered they were educators first, coaches second -- and if that left relatively little time for their personal lives, such was the price of this kind of career happiness.

They knew they were pioneers exploring not literal "land" but rather "turf" that traditionally had belonged to men. They knew there were barriers to knock down, but different ways to do that.

Some people ran headlong and threw their full force against them. Yow wasn't like that. There was another option. Gently, but firmly, she could lean against the barriers. Eventually, they would give way.

In the 1970s, NC State and Maryland were the two giants of ACC women's basketball. That continued into the 1980s. Yow's first battle with cancer, in 1987, didn't stop her from recovering to coach the U.S. Olympic team to gold in 1988.

Yow's Wolfpack won the ACC tournament in 1980, '85, '87 and '91. In 1993, though, Yow's program was in the midst of a mini-slump in which it missed the NCAA tournament three seasons in a row. But Yow had much more serious losses to deal with then.

Valvano, who shared her passion for books and basketball, died of cancer that April. A few weeks later, Yow's mother also passed away after fighting cancer. So neither was alive to see Yow reach the pinnacle of her coaching career, in 1998, when NC State advanced to the Women's Final Four.

Yow got involved in The V Foundation, and raising funds for cancer research was to become as great a part of her legacy as coaching.

As she put it, "I said a long time ago in my career that if what I'm doing is just about W's and L's -- wow, how superficial. I give my whole life to that? No, it's about investing in people."


Cancer's return forced Yow to miss 16 games in the 2006-07 season, but her team had something special in store for her when she got back on the sideline. The Wolfpack upset both of their nearby rivals, North Carolina and Duke, plus made a run to the Sweet 16.

Kay Yow
APNo coach was like Kay Yow, who was successful at a high level but also universally liked, and inspired only admiration and never ire in her foes.

Yow's father, Hilton Lee Yow, died of congestive heart failure that March. Yow coached through that, and through her obvious fatigue and pain. Her body was a battleground between the cancer trying to decimate her and the drugs trying to decimate the cancer. Many thought Yow might not make it to another season. But she did, crediting a faith that gave her strength beyond what seemed possible.

She got through 2007-08, when she was the only person who could unify feuding coaches Summitt and Geno Auriemma of UConn. Both are on the board of directors for the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, which was created in December 2007 and works in partnership with The V Foundation.

In September 2008, Summitt, Auriemma and many of Yow's other colleagues, plus some LPGA stars, gathered to compete in the 4K Golf Classic to benefit the Yow fund.

"Everyone feels a connection with Kay," Auriemma said. "She's a competitor, but she's a great human being, first and foremost."

This February, in a tradition that started in 2007, teams across the nation will again wear pink uniforms for the "Pink Zone" initiative. Formerly known as "Think Pink," the event -- which also has spurred several male coaches and even some men's college basketball teams to don pink ties, pocket squares and uniforms -- raises funds for breast cancer research.

Yow always saw her life's true importance as helping others, working toward goals that could benefit everyone. She believed we are all bound together. Her wish was that no one would feel alone.

It's like the Robert Frost poem "A Tuft of Flowers," in which the narrator comes to work in a field that another man had cut earlier -- and feels a kinship with him over a common purpose. He wants to send him a "message" with his thoughts even though they would never meet.

"Men work together," I told him from the heart. "Whether they work together or apart."

Men and women, boys and girls, people of every age -- all can participate in fighting cancer because there's so much still to be done. You can donate to the cause and help continue to fund life-saving and life-extending research.

But you also can honor Yow just as profoundly by simply bringing a little more everyday kindness into your life and those of people around you.

In so many ways, we can all keep working together with Kay Yow. Even though, through our tears, we accept that we must now work apart.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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