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A Pioneer of Collegiate Women’s Sports

by Lydia Lum

North Carolina State University’s Kay Yow has amassed an impressive win-loss record, but to her players she’s more than a coach.

Such modesty is typical of Yow, a pioneer of collegiate women’s sports who never had college teams to join herself. An Olympic gold medal champion whose entire coaching career has been spent in her home state of North Carolina, Yow has amassed a remarkable lifetime win-loss record of 729-337. She is one of only six coaches to have won at least 700 career games in the history of Division I women’s basketball.

“Among African-Americans, so many of us have appreciated the opportunity to play for a legend,” says Trena Trice-Hill, an assistant coach under Yow and former N.C. State player.

Yow’s teams have won five Atlantic Coast Conference championships and appeared in 20 NCAA tournaments, including a 1998 trip to the Final Four. But she emphasizes that her relationships with players and ex-players are what she is most proud of.

“If you evaluate yourself as a coach just on wins and losses, it makes everything superficial. There’s a much deeper side to life.” Trice-Hill, who has known Yow since signing a letter of intent in the early 1980s to play for the Wolfpack, laughs when describing the connection many players and former players have with Yow. “She makes you feel like you’re her favorite. The way she talks, she will have you thinking you can walk on the moon. Yet she never makes people feel like any one is better than the other.”

The affection former players have for Yow is illustrated by a constant stream of phone calls and greeting cards exchanged between them and her. Some former players have named their daughters after Yow. Many faithfully attend N.C. State’s annual Hoops for Hope game, which raises money and awareness for breast cancer research, an effort coinciding with Yow’s personal fight against the disease. Hoops for Hope has drawn former players from as far away as Europe who come to support Yow and play in alumni games.

Yow is one of three sisters who parlayed youthful passions for basketball into long careers in college sports. Deborah Yow is director of athletics at the University of Maryland. Susan Yow is head coach of women’s basketball at Belmont Abbey College.

Kay Yow grew up in Gibsonville, N.C., in the 1940s and ’50s playing basketball behind her family’s frame house. Whenever her sisters and other neighborhood girls tired of shooting hoops, she played against boys. In high school, she became known for her scoring prowess at a time when girls’ games regularly featured six against six because self-proclaimed experts believed the sport too grueling for girls to copy boys’ games of five on five.

An East Carolina University graduate, Yow planned to become a teacher or librarian, one of the few careers open to women. And college athletics were men only.

But others openly disagreed with unequal treatment. In Greensboro, a few miles from Yow’s hometown, four young Black men sat down at a Whites-only lunch counter in 1960 to be served, sparking nonviolent, student sit-ins throughout the South as Blacks called for an end to segregated public facilities. “Some of my mother’s best friends were African-American,” Yow recalls. “They always visited our home, so growing up, I never understood why I saw one thing at home and another in public.”

Not only would the walls of discrimination slowly crumble for Blacks, but they would for women, too.When Yow sought a high school teaching job in the town of High Point in 1964, the principal, knowing her basketball talent, hired her on the condition she would also coach a girls’ team. When she pointed out her lack of knowledge about coaching, the principal promised her help and advice. Yow accepted, and he kept his promise. After four years there and a fifth in Gibsonville, she moved on to Elon College, where she coached her sisters and won the 1974 state title. A year later, N.C. State hired her to help implement Title IX, the law requiring schools to offer equal opportunities to male and female students, including athletes. At first, Yow coached not only women’s basketball, but also women’s softball and volleyball, tasks she eventually relinquished as the programs grew.

As the basketball wins piled up, Yow served as an assistant coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team and head coach of the 1988 team, both times winning gold medals. Not surprisingly over the years, other Division I schools tried prying her away from N.C. State with higher salary offers — to no avail.

“They say the grass is always greener elsewhere, but you still have to mow that grass,” quips Yow, who’s known for folksy aphorisms. Trice-Hill says Yow became a surrogate parent when her mother died unexpectedly during her freshman year in college.

“She didn’t want me wallowing in self-pity. She told me to swish my feet in it, get out and continue my life. Those words carried me a long way.”

In 2004, Trice-Hill was a Hampton University assistant coach in women’s basketball, a few miles from her native Norfolk, Va., when the opportunity to coach under Yow opened up. “It was a no-brainer. This is home.”

Yow first battled breast cancer in 1987. It went into remission but returned 17 years later. Despite treatment, the cancer progressed, and, in 2006, she took a leave of absence from the team. While still in chemotherapy, she returned in early 2007 and soon coached her 700th victory. N.C. State’s court has since been christened “Kay Yow Court.”

She still wants to win a national championship, but quickly adds, “My cup is overflowing. All the players, all the teams, I have no lack of fulfillment.”

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