When you’re accustomed to success, and eager to offer a bold vision after taking a new job, you might succumb to talking yourself out onto a limb. Debbie Yow did.
“What you do is so much more important than what you say,” offers Yow, “but it does have to start with what you say.” So, upon being hired at N.C. State in June 2010, she declared her intent to see the long-eclipsed program stand among the top 25 nationally. “I know that sounded ridiculous on that day,” she recalls. “Was I a little nervous to say it? Um, hum. Yes, I was. But that’s also how you have to get there. You have to first say it in order to start envisioning it.”
Nine coaching hires, a budget increase of around $17 million and an organizational and cultural revamp later, Yow and N.C. State are getting there.
“She driven, she’s very driven,” says younger sister Susan Yow, head women’s basketball coach at Queens College in Charlotte and a former All-American basketballer at N.C. State. “She’s a competitor; she enjoys competition. And she wants to win.”
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That intensity was not always manifest. Soon after enrolling at East Carolina, Debbie Yow abandoned Greenville and embraced the unstructured counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her journey of self-exploration took her from North Carolina to California and back again, all the while experimenting with an alternative lifestyle and “questioning in a new way what would generally be described as ‘the establishment,’” she says.
Yow believes those explorations “immeasurably” bolstered her subsequent career in athletics. For instance, when a player tests positive for drug use or otherwise strays from team or school norms, she offers counseling “from a very nonjudgmental perspective,” she says. “That’s the value of that experience.”
In time Yow gravitated to the family home in Gibsonville, and resumed a conventional path. She attended Elon College and played basketball under older sister Kay Yow, who died in 2009 after a 34-year, Hall of Fame career at N.C. State. “Debbie’s strengths were boxing out and rebounding and defense – the hustle parts of the game,” Kay Yow once said.
Debbie Yow too became a basketball coach, in short order leading new varsity women’s programs at Kentucky, Oral Roberts, and Florida to winning records, first-time poll appearances and postseason play. Her 1983 Oral Roberts squad finished 26-1. At UK, after her team worked out, Yow sneaked into closed men’s practices at Memorial Auditorium, furthering her basketball education by surreptitiously watching Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats through slats in the seats.
Eventually she wound up in athletic administration, getting her first AD job at St. Louis University in 1990. Then it was on to Maryland, where an unsecured $6.7 million debt and a Title IX compliance investigation hung over the program and reportedly discouraged more established male candidates. At College Park, Yow became the first female athletic director in ACC history.
Make that the only female athletic director in ACC history.
“I would never have thought when I began in the ACC in 1994, that in the year 2015 there would have been no others,” she says. Nationally, there were only seven women ADs among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision schools at the start of the current academic year, testament to the good-old-boy culture still permeating big-time college sports.
The war room
Debbie Yow replaced Lee Fowler at Raleigh just as the N.C. General Assembly countermanded its own foolishness and eliminated scholarship subsidies for out-of-state athletes. That cost the Wolfpack more than $2 million, exacerbating a problem already clear to the new AD. “I realized our programs were basically starving, and that one of the reasons we weren’t able to achieve is we didn’t have the support operationally in their budgets to do literally what they needed to do,” she says.
Yow, whom one ACC administrator describes as “a bulldozer,” immediately went about making changes: replacing middling coaches, instilling a constant emphasis on NCAA compliance, symbolically removing the TV and couch from her office. “I won’t be taking a nap,” she declares. “This is a war room.”
Funding was significantly enhanced by the ACC’s new TV deal with ESPN. Yow says it’s all about “matching resources to expectations and giving time for people to get there.” The results, including improved athletic graduation rates, led N.C. State to recognize Yow’s performance last month by extending her contract until 2019 and increasing her salary by 25 percent, to $690,000.
“Debbie’s tremendous dedication to this university, the success of its athletics teams and the academic accomplishments of our student athletes have gone a long way to help fuel N.C. State’s upward trajectory,” chancellor Randy Woodson, who hired Yow while himself a newcomer, said in a statement announcing the new deal.
N.C. State was at best a middle of the pack ACC program when Yow arrived. In men’s basketball, where neighboring Duke and UNC routinely excel, the program had missed the NCAA tournament for four consecutive years and hadn’t won an ACC title since 1987. The women were no longer a power. The football team, which hasn’t finished first since 1979, hovered around the .500 mark. Few of the school’s 20 other teams produced champions, either.
Standings in the Director’s Cup – a ranking system promoted by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics to gauge cumulative program achievement – placed N.C. State 89th in the country when Yow took over. The 2009-10 season was the fourth in a row in which the school’s ranking declined, its standing the lowest since the Cup was created in 1994.
Five years into Yow’s tenure, N.C. State is 22nd and fifth in the ACC in the most recent standings, with a few sports yet to be tallied. That would be its best finish ever.
Dave Doeren led the 2014 football squad, his second, to an 8-5 record and a bowl victory. Mark Gottfried, hired by Yow after popular alumnus Sidney Lowe was ousted, took the basketball team to its fourth straight NCAA tournament in 2015, one shy of matching the school record. Six other teams finished in the top 25 in their sports this past academic year. Meanwhile, an indoor practice facility for football is underway, as is a $35 million renovation of Reynolds Coliseum.
Not surprisingly, Yow’s aggressive style has ruffled feathers, and not just within the previously homey athletic department. After Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta were ejected from a 2012 basketball game at Raleigh by official Karl Hess, Yow endeared herself to the faithful by quickly honoring the 1989 squad on which they played, in the process waving the N.C. State banner in the faces of league officials.
These days she devotes considerable time to what she calls “stewardship” – a gamut of duties from reaching out to key supporters to responding to every e-mail and text message she receives. Yow also monitors players’ Twitter accounts, alerting coaches to troubling messages.
With retirement drawing near, Yow, 64, looks ahead either to teaching college classes in sports management and leadership, or joining husband, Bill Bowden, in working with children’s charities. She might even finally publish the children’s stories she has written chronicling the adventures of Milo the squirrel and his sidekick, Dixon the Dachshund.