PEELER: Yow's Legacy Is Opportunity, Courage
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. There was a tiny hole in the heart of legendary NC State basketball coach Kay Yow that was never really filled.
“I think back on my high school years and those were my best years [as an athlete],” Yow said a few years back. “I know a lot of my friends from college always said those were their best years, but I always felt that something was missing from my college experience.
“It was sports, which I had played my whole life before college.”
When Yow attended East Carolina Teachers College in the early 1960s, there was no intercollegiate basketball for women. She played intramurals, but varsity sports for women were still a long way away.
Admitting to that disappointment was startling for the selfless Yow, who never showed an ounce of regret or self-pity throughout her life, as she worked tirelessly to gain a foothold in the early days of women’s athletics and as she fought a three-round battle with breast cancer. Those challenges ended early Saturday morning when she died peacefully in her sleep at Raleigh’s Rex Hospital. She was 66.
But she used that missed opportunity as the inspiration for a pioneering career in college athletics, in which she made sure hundreds of women at NC State and, on a larger scale, thousands of women nationally did not have a similar regret. She built a championship program that attracted women student-athletes from all over the world, gave them the chance to compete at the highest level of college athletics and established a foundation of support that earned her respect from the university she represented.
And that’s all she ever set out to do.
“I want a team and program that are worthy of respect,” Yow said shortly after she was hired by former NC State athletics director Willis Casey on July 1, 1975, to be the state of North Carolina’s first full-time coordinator for women’s athletics. “If we can have a team that the students can have pride in and these students recognize when you have a good team then we can gain their support.
“We want to strive for excellence in all areas.”
Those were similar goals Everett Case had when he began building the NC State men’s program to national prominence a quarter-century earlier, when he turned a rusted skeleton of steel into a gleaming basketball palace called Reynolds Coliseum and created a red-and-white-hot passion for basketball in the South.
The Indiana-born Case turned the attention of the state to basketball and inspired families all over North Carolina to play basketball hoops in their backyards. That’s what Hilton and Lib Yow of Gibsonville, N.C., did when their oldest daughter, Sandra Kay Yow, turned 7 years old. The parents had been high school basketball stars in the 1930s, and wanted to pass their love of the game to their three daughters Kay, Debbie and Susan and their son, Ronnie.
Hilton Yow fanned the flame for basketball in his oldest daughter by taking Kay to the Dixie Classic, Case’s post-holiday basketball extravaganza at Reynolds Coliseum. The annual event brought four of the best teams in the country to Raleigh to play against NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest and set the stage for Reynolds to become the South’s showcase for basketball.
That little girl was the four-time most valuable player of Gibsonville High School and once scored 52 points in a prep game. Her records were eventually broken by her sisters, but when Susan Yow graduated in 1972, the No. 14 jersey that all three sisters wore during their careers was retired.
She was an accidental coach who needed strong encouragement to take over the girls’ basketball team at Allen Jay High School, where she was hired to be an English teacher, not a coach. But she became good at it, winning three conference tournament championships in four years before returning to Gibsonville High to coach Susan’s final two prep seasons.
She began the basketball program at Elon, just two miles from her family’s home and jumped at the opportunity to start the program at NC State, when Casey made it known that he wanted to build a winning program similar to what Norm Sloan had built with the men’s program and Lou Holtz had built with the football program.
And since her arrival in the summer of 1975, Reynolds has been the home for her program. She could sit in her office and listen to the bouncing balls of her players practicing to improve their game. In 2007, the school named the floor Kay Yow Court to honor her achievements and dedication to the university.
“There have been so many great coaches and great players who have played in this arena and I just hope that with the court named after me that I would represent them in a classy way,” she said at the time. “I always wanted to add a little something to Reynolds. I think of her as a grand old lady and one of my best buddies.”
Yow arrived in Raleigh on the heels of the NC State men’s first national championship, led by the incomparable David Thompson. And that is the goal she set for her program. Like Case, she never reached the pinnacle of college basketball success, though she did win four ACC Tournament Championships, coached the United States to an Olympic gold medal and led her team to the 1998 Final Four.
There was hardly a hole in her resume. In 2002, she became just the fifth woman to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for her career accomplishments.
For all she did on the basketball court, Yow became a torch-bearer off the court, as many watched her courageous, inspirational battles with cancer. That battle began in 1987, when she had a modified radical mastectomy just 11 months before taking Team USA to win the Olympic gold medal.
The disease went dormant for some 17 years before returning in 2004. Yow was forced to take two leaves of absence to fight the disease. Her return two years ago to lead her team to 14 wins in their final 16 games was one of the most inspiring sporting accomplishments in recent memory.
Yow never coached for achievements. She did it for the love of the sport and the opportunity to teach. When she won her 600th game at NC State, she eloquently deflected any kind of personal accolades.
“I don't say this to be trite, [because] I mean this from the bottom of my heart, but when a milestone comes, when the games are won, for the life of me I can't understand why it would be attributed to me,'' she said. “I am just one person on all the teams. I realize I might be the one person who is the same on every team, but of course we couldn't do it, I wouldn't even be a part of it, if it weren't for everybody else.
“I’m pretty grateful that I am a part of it. But I am definitely not the part. I would say it is real exciting to be a part of so many great wins with all the people I have been associated with. I attribute it so much more to my staff and my players than to me. All of these milestones and accomplishments go to all of them.”
Still, Yow wrapped her loving arms around each of those players, those coaches and those people who made all the victories and accomplishments possible. She touched them in ways that went far beyond basketball and athletics. She taught them about life, how to respond to crises and how to overcome obstacles.
One of her favorite lessons was that you have zero control over what happens to you in life, but 100 percent control over how you respond to it. And she always chose to respond with the most positive, optimistic possible outlook. That’s what people will remember long after her coaching records are broken.
“If you leave this world, the key thing is to have made a difference,” Yow said a few years ago, after reaching one of her many career milestones. “That’s been the great thing for me. That is what I feel I have been here for.”
Rest peacefully, Coach. You have taken the women’s basketball this far. There are still mountains to climb and hurdles to clear, but you have inspired the generation that will lead the way to fulfill dreams that weren’t imaginable when you were young.
And none of them will ever regret not having the opportunity to compete.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.