Kay Yow dies at 66

Updated: January 30, 2009, 2:25 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina State's Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame women's basketball coach who won more than 700 games while earning fans with her decades-long fight against breast cancer, died on Saturday. She was 66.

Yow, first diagnosed with the disease in 1987, died Saturday morning at WakeMed Cary Hospital after being admitted there last week, university spokeswoman Annabelle Myers said.

"I think she understood that keeping going was inspirational to other people who were in the same boat she was in," Dr. Mark Graham, Yow's longtime oncologist, said Saturday.

The Wolfpack's game at Wake Forest on Monday was postponed to Feb. 10. Its next game will be Thursday at home against Boston College.

A public viewing is scheduled for Friday morning in Cary, followed by the funeral that afternoon. Yow will be buried the next day in her hometown of Gibsonville, located about 70 miles west of Raleigh.

"She's just been a great friend to so many people; obviously left her footprints all over the place with the kids she has taught and molded," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt told ESPN. "And she is a woman that had fought such a hard fight, but it was always about everyone else, never about Kay."

There were moments of silence to honor Yow before several basketball games Saturday, including the N.C. State-Boston College men's game in Boston.

Duke -- one of N.C. State's closest ACC rivals -- also honored Yow before the men's game against Maryland.

"God bless Kay," Blue Devils men's coach Mike Krzyzewski said to end his postgame news conference. "A fighter until the end."

Yow had a record of 737-344 in 38 years -- 34 years with the Wolfpack -- in a career filled with countless milestones. She coached the U.S. Olympic women's team to a gold medal in 1988; won four Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships; earned 20 NCAA tournament bids; and reached the Final Four in 1998.

She also was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002; North Carolina State dedicated "Kay Yow Court" at Reynolds Coliseum in 2007.

But for many fans, Yow was best defined by her unwavering resolve while fighting cancer, from raising awareness and money for research to staying with her team through the debilitating effects of the disease and chemotherapy treatments. In her final months, Yow was on hormonal therapy as the cancer spread to her liver and bones.

She never flinched or complained, relying on her faith as the disease progressed. She commonly noted there were other patients with "harder battles than I'm fighting" and said it was inspiring for her to stay with her team.

"Almost everybody is dealing with something," Yow said in a 2006 interview.

"We're all faced with a lot of tough issues that we're dealing with," she said. "We know we need to just come to the court and let that be our catharsis in a way. You can't bring it on the court with you, but we can all just think of basketball as an escape for a few hours."

I have to go through it. I accept that, and I'm not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. But it just would be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn't help people. But then I see I'm helping others in a greater way than I ever have. That's the amazing thing, you know?

-- Kay Yow, in a 2007 interview

ACC commissioner John Swofford said Yow had an impact on many.

"Whether one of her players, an opposing coach, a friend, an associate in the world of sports or one who observed her grace, dignity, elegance, kindness and competitive spirit from a distance, you couldn't help but be touched by her presence in our world," Swofford said. "Kay was a very special lady. All of us associated with the ACC will miss her immensely, and our thoughts and prayers go out to her family, loved ones and team."

Yow also was a past president and founding member of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. The group's president, Sherri Coale, hailed her legacy and her impact on the game.

"In sickness and in health she was a bastion of courage and kindness," said Coale, who is the head coach at Oklahoma. "Her zest for life and her determination to make a difference in this world have galvanized our profession while inspiring millions."

In 2007, Yow established the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund in partnership with The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

"I am honored to have a Fund established in partnership with The V Foundation that bears the name of Kay Yow," V Foundation CEO Nick Valvano said. "Her courage, faith and legacy will continue to live on in the hearts of those she helped to inspire throughout her coaching career and battle with cancer."

"Kay taught us all to live life with passion and to never give up. She carried herself with great faith and dignity," said ESPN and ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer, who served on the V Foundation board with Yow. "ESPN will always be committed to the Kay Yow Fund of The V Foundation in her memory. She was truly a beautiful person."

Yow announced earlier this month that she would not return to the team this season after she missed four games because of what was described as an extremely low energy level.

The team visited Yow in the hospital before leaving Wednesday for a game at Miami. Associate head coach Stephanie Glance -- who led the team in Yow's previous absences as well -- met with the team Saturday morning to inform them Yow had died, Myers said.

Yow's fight was never more public than when she took a 16-game leave to focus on her treatments during the 2006-07 season. After her return, her inspired Wolfpack won 12 of its final 15 games with wins against highly ranked rivals Duke and North Carolina in a run that attracted plenty of fans wearing pink -- the color of breast-cancer awareness.

Her players also wore pink shoelaces for their coach.

"There were so many times I felt like giving up," forward Khadijah Whittington said after the Wolfpack's loss to Connecticut in the 2007 NCAA tournament's round of 16, "and then I see Coach Yow and she never gives up."

Yow always found ways to keep coaching, even as she fought the disease. She spent most games during that emotional 2007 run sitting on the bench; Glance stood to shout instructions to players, and helped a weakened Yow to her feet.

"She's the Iron Woman, with the Lord's help," Glance said.

Yow was quick to embrace her role as an example for others battling the disease. She often found herself going about her daily activities in Raleigh only to have someone stop her and say they were praying for her or that she was an inspiration to them.

"When they say that, it really gives me a lift because it's at that time I know for sure that I'm not going through it for nothing," Yow said in 2007. "That means a lot to me. I have to go through it. I accept that, and I'm not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. But it just would be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn't help people.

"But then I see I'm helping others in a greater way than I ever have. That's the amazing thing, you know?"

[+] EnlargeKay Yow
AP Photo/Nell RedmondNC State coach Kay Yow, seen here in the 2008 ACC tournament, coached the U.S. women to a gold medal in 1988.

Born March 14, 1942, Sandra Kay Yow originally took up coaching to secure a job teaching high school English at Allen Jay High School in High Point, N.C., in the 1960s. Her boss, along with the boys' basketball coach, agreed to help her plan practices and to sit on the bench with her during games. Midway through the season, Yow was on her own.

"Really, it was like love at first sight," she said in 2004.

She spent four years there, followed by another year in her hometown at Gibsonville High, compiling a 92-27 record. She moved on to Elon, going 57-19 in four seasons before being hired at North Carolina State in 1975.

Her original cancer diagnosis came the year before coaching the United States to the gold at the Seoul Olympics. She had a mastectomy as part of her treatment, then discovered a lump in November 2004, close to where cancer was first discovered.

She had surgery that December and started on a regimen of radiation and daily hormone therapy. Still, the cancer came back.

She missed two games of the 2004-05 season while attending an eight-day nutritional modification program, which called for her to eat an organic-food diet, free of meat, dairy products and sugar. She stayed on the diet for eight months, losing 40 pounds by keeping junk food and Southern favorites such as biscuits and gravy off her menu.

Still, she cheated on her organic diet during home recruiting visits because she didn't want to offend anyone by passing on a home-cooked meal.

Over the years, Yow never lost her folksy, easygoing manner and refused to dwell on her health issues, though they colored everything she did almost as much as basketball. Ultimately, her philosophy on both were the same.

"If you start to dwell on the wrong things, it'll take you down fast," Yow said in 2007. "Every morning, I wake up and the first thing I think of is I'm thankful. I'm thankful for another day."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.