Yow’s challenge: Put N.C. State athletic department on top

awestney@newsobserver.com May 6, 2012 

  • Raising the bar Debbie Yow officially began her duties as N.C. State athletic director on July 15, 2010. The athletic department’s 2010 budget totaled $45.7 million. That number climbed to $56.6 million in 2012, a 23.9 percent increase, the fastest growth rate among ACC public universities. UNC’s budget over the same period grew 16.8 percent, to $72.2 million in 2012 from $61.8 million in 2010. However, N.C. State’s total budget still trails all but Virginia Tech’s among ACC public universities. In the years prior to Yow’s arrival, N.C. State finished 89th in 2009-10 and 74th in 2008-09 in the Directors’ Cup, which measures the overall success of an athletic program by awarding points for high national finishes in up to 20 sports. During Yow’s tenure, N.C. State finished 67th in 2010-11 and ranks 41st through the fall and winter seasons of 2011-12. The largest single contribution to the school’s standing so far this year came from the school’s Sweet 16 run in men’s basketball. The football program also earned points for finishing 26th in the nation after its win over Louisville in the Belk Bowl. The school’s best performer among nonrevenue sports this year is cross country, with the men’s and women’s teams combined earning more points than the men’s basketball team. Andrew Westney

After taking over as athletic director at N.C. State in June 2010, Debbie Yow declared her five-year plan for the program: to become a perennial top 25 school as measured by the Directors’ Cup rankings, which award points for national places in varsity sports.

To achieve that goal, the school would need successful teams across the board – not only the big-ticket sports, football and men’s basketball, but also the Olympic sports, from swimming and wrestling to women’s basketball and soccer.

All of State’s 23 teams would have to step up. OK was not going to be enough; passable would no longer get a pass.

“I think being mediocre is boring,” Yow said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a disservice to the university as well. It’s a disservice to anybody who contributes to athletics. I don’t think people say, ‘Gee, let me make a gift to Wolfpack athletics, because I think they’re going to be mediocre.’ So I don’t make any apologies for expecting worth and movement toward excellence in each of our sports.”

Yow doesn’t think any athletic program has been able to establish itself in the top 25 in such a short timeframe, and she knows that ambition entails risk.

“I’d rather shoot high and fail than shoot low and cover ourselves,” she said. “I don’t want to celebrate being number 40 or number 35, I just can’t! So we’re going to go for it.”

The effort to raise the profile of the program involves money for facilities and travel and increased pressure on all the program’s coaches to win.

But Yow said it starts with the school’s revenue sports, football and men’s basketball.

“When you’re thinking as an AD about Olympic sports and what you might be able to achieve so you have an across the board, very strong, top 25 athletics program, it always starts with football and men’s basketball,” Yow said. “So your investment initially has to be there.”

The men’s basketball team’s recent Sweet 16 run will benefit Olympic sports – a term she prefers to “nonrevenue sports” as “more respectful,” Yow said.

“We haven’t had a lot of positive national exposure recently, so it’s going to be good for all 23 varsity teams.”

But with the school willing to step up its commitment to all of its teams, Yow expects every coach to take on the challenge of becoming a top national program.

Gymnastics coach Mark Stevenson said that level of accountability hasn’t been the norm for Olympic sports at N.C. State.

“I’ve never been in a position where anybody said I was going to win,” Stevenson said. “Usually, it was, ‘We don’t expect you to win, because we’re not supporting you enough.’ ”

Stevenson became a head coach at N.C. State in 1980 – he shared a hiring party with Jim Valvano – and has seen administrations come and go.

“Nobody has stood in front of me like Debbie did and said, ‘I’m going to support you and you’re going to be a top 10 team, or you will find a different job,’ ” Stevenson said. He added that Yow might not have used those exact words, but he got the message.

“There’s that little bit of extra pressure, and I’m OK with that.”

Stevenson thinks that support is already paying dividends. In 2010, the team finished sixth in the NCAA regionals. In 2011, the team moved up to fourth, and this year finished third, coming within two-tenths of a point of advancing to the NCAA finals. Stevenson was named 2012 Southeast Regional Coach of the Year at the tournament in Raleigh.

“We’ve seen an increase in our funding, and just from last year to this year we moved up nine spaces (in national placement). We’re finishing the season 17th in the country. Last year we were 26th.”

The Wolfpack baseball team is also in the midst of a promising season. Going into Saturday’s games, the team (31-12, 16-8 ACC) was ranked No. 17, led by freshman pitcher Carlos Rodon and freshman third baseman Trea Turner.

Coach Elliott Avent credited increased funding and improved facilities for helping the team recruit better, not just against ACC schools but other prominent regional programs such as East Carolina and two-time defending NCAA champion South Carolina. He also said for a team to succeed, the coach in charge has to be the motivating force.

“(Yow) has a great expectation and a great desire to win, and she backs that up with a tireless work ethic. But I think the commitment to excellence and the desire to win always lie within the coaches themselves and the programs themselves.” Approaching the end of her second year at the school, Yow believes the athletic program as a whole has taken the first steps on a long road to achieving its goals. In 2011, N.C. State finished 67th in the final Directors’ Cup standings after finishing 89th in 2010.

This year, N.C. State ranked 41st as of April 26, when the latest results were announced. But the school still falls short of its local rivals, UNC and Duke, who are established as consistent top 20 programs. In the April 26 list, UNC ranked eighth after finishing sixth in 2011, and Duke ranked 17th after finishing fifth in 2011.

Money a key

The main obstacle to reaching the top, Yow said, is money.

“We’re so far below the average per-student-athlete investment among the ACC publics, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “We’re way down. We’d need another 7 million in funding annually to reach the average.” Yow based her assessment on data provided to the federal government as part of the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) and other financial information analyzed by her department.

Like N.C. State, UNC and Duke rely on the two revenue sports as the foundation for their success in other sports.

“All of our Olympic sports do not generate revenue, so our revenue sources are from football and men’s basketball, as well as from the ACC with TV revenue,” said Beth Miller, senior associate athletic director for Olympic sports at UNC. UNC fields 28 varsity teams, second most in the ACC to Boston College’s 29.

Bubba Cunningham, athletic director at UNC, said the university focuses on the Directors’ Cup and ACC championships as primary benchmarks for overall athletic achievement. UNC has continued to finish high in the Directors’ Cup standings despite spending less than the ACC average per student-athlete, an accomplishment Cunningham credits to the school’s coaching staff.

“The most significant reason for the success is the long-tenured coaches we have that enable us to maintain success over an extended period of time,” Cunningham said.

Jon Jackson, associate director of athletics at Duke, said the school “strive(s) to be a top 10 Directors’ Cup program.” He added that academic achievement by athletes was another key goal. Jackson said economic conditions in the past few years made it harder for the athletic department to continue to produce athletically while remaining fiscally responsible, but said: “We have not dropped off in any form or fashion because of the economic world around us.”

At UNC, budget issues have somewhat limited spending. “We’ve done the major things, the things we feel are critical for the success of our sports,” Miller said. “But there are things we’d like to do that we haven’t been able to do because of the resources not being there,” she added, including making facility improvements.

Despite the financial gap between N.C. State and other ACC schools, Yow said she’s not discouraged by the task she’s set for the program.

“You get used to the enormity of it, and we’re chipping away,” she said.

A new soccer coach

Though men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried is Yow’s most prominent hire, Yow also replaced N.C. State’s longtime men’s soccer coach, hiring Butler’s Kelly Findley in December 2010 to replace George Tarantini.

“Professionally, it was my dream job,” Findley said. “Debbie and the administration had a great vision for where nonrevenue sports need to get to.”

“She said, ‘Men’s soccer is important to me; we want to win a national championship; we want to give whoever gets this position everything they need to be successful.’ ”

He said he hopes to institute a new attitude to rebuild the N.C. State program.

“Over the last few years the team has not been great, so it takes some time to change that culture, and that’s part of the reason I got the opportunity to come in,” Findley said. The team finished 7-11-2 in Findley’s first season as coach, a drop-off from the team’s 10-8-2 record in 2010, but he believes three years or so of coaching and recruiting are needed to create the ethos he wants.

“It’s not professional sports, you can’t just come in and get rid of everybody and bring a whole new team in,” Findley said. “So it takes a little bit of time to turn the existing guys, get the culture right with them.”

Findley praised Yow for making many facility improvements possible for the soccer team this year, including new field lights, locker rooms, bathrooms, stands and a press box.

“Now, we’re actually recruiting with some of the best facilities in the country,” said Findley, who is signed to a five-year contract with the school.

The women’s soccer team is making its own effort to raise its profile. On Thursday, head coach Steve Springthorpe announced the team’s tougher, 2012 schedule.

“The 2012 schedule is the toughest one that we have played in a number of years here at State,” Springthorpe said in a statement. “With 13 out of 19 teams (on the schedule) coming off an NCAA tournament appearance in 2011 it will be a fantastic challenge for us.”

Gymnastic coach Stevenson also pointed to scheduling as one of the ways the school has pushed to improve Olympic sports. The team has funds to travel this season to compete against high-ranking teams such as Oklahoma, LSU and Georgia, as well as new equipment, team clothing and office space.

“It’s a tremendous boost to recruiting when you can walk in and say, ‘Well, we’re going to see six of the top 15 teams in the country this year,’ ” Stevenson said.

Turnover in wrestling

Carter Jordan, who was hired by former athletic director Lee Fowler in 2004, won’t be around to reap the benefits of Yow’s approach.

Despite making what he considered solid progress with the wrestling team, Jordan was fired in early April. Pat Popolizio, former head coach at Binghamton University, was hired to replace Jordan on April 10.

“That chapter in my life is over,” Jordan said in a recent phone interview. “It was a wonderful chapter. It probably, in my opinion, ended a little too shortly.”

He said the wrestling team had done its best “with nothing” before Yow came to the school, having to patch together a program with part-time assistant coaches, a limited budget and facilities inferior to those of other ACC programs.

After Yow arrived, Jordan heard and welcomed the same message from Yow that Findley and Stevenson received.

“The common theme has been that we have to give our coaches the necessary resources and tools to be successful,” Jordan said. “I think that’s a very good thing to have, and that’s what we were told over and over again.”

The wrestling program’s budget jumped from about $60,000 to nearly $80,000 after Yow’s arrival in 2010, Jordan said, allowing the team to compete on more even terms with other ACC schools. Another increase in 2011 pushed the budget to near $120,000, which Jordan considered an average budget for an ACC wrestling program.

Jordan said the additional money was “like manna from heaven. And we were able to take advantage of that. We had a $10,000 recruiting budget before Debbie got there. …We got it bumped up to $25,000, and bam, we got a top 25 recruiting class.”

Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine ranked N.C. State’s 2011 recruiting class fifth best nationwide.

The team was able to travel more in the past two years and hire full-time assistant coaches for the first time, Jordan said. The team finished fourth in the ACC championships, up from fifth in 2011 and sixth in 2010, and finished 44th in the country, according to the Directors’ Cup standings, bettering its 56th place finish in 2010.

But that wasn’t enough for Jordan to keep his job.

N.C. State associate athletic director Sherard Clinkscales, who oversees the baseball, wrestling, and the men’s and women’s soccer teams, said the administration didn’t believe the wrestling team was making enough progress under Jordan. “If you look at the ACC record of our wrestling team, it hasn’t been up to par,” Clinkscales said.

Jordan felt he wasn’t given enough time to continue what he saw as his team’s gradual improvement under tough circumstances.

Clinkscales, hired by Yow in July 2011 after two years working at the NCAA as assistant director for championships, said ACC titles and, ultimately, national championships are the ambition of all Olympic sports teams at N.C. State. He thinks the administration’s supportive but demanding approach marks a change from the culture that used to prevail.

“We see ourselves as partners with our coaches,” he said. “We want to help them reach their goals. ... At the same time, we hold them accountable for those goals.”

That accountability gets passed down from the coaches to their teams. New wrestling head coach Popolizio, who competed for Oklahoma State squads that finished in the top five nationally during each of his four years at the school, has jumped right into recruiting and trying to raise the standard of discipline among the team’s current wrestlers. He said, so far, his efforts have not received the response he wants.

“They have to realize what it really takes to compete for a national title as individuals right now,” Popolizio said. “I know there’s talent here. I just need to map out for them what they need to do day to day, weekto week, month to month, and then year-round.”

Yow wants to continue to increase the athletic budget without overburdening the school’s supporters.

“We can’t do this on the backs of our donors,” she said. “Certainly we need their support and help, but we have that.” Yow is looking to “business deals” to help continue to provide funding for all the school’s sports.

One major deal closed in March, with N.C. State signing a 10-year, $49 million contract with Wolfpack Sports Properties, LLC to manage the school’s multimedia rights. And on April 25, the school announced a four-year, $7 million apparel contract with adidas that covers all 23 teams, replacing the deal adidas had with the football and men’s basketball teams. The comprehensive contract brings N.C. State in line with Duke and UNC, which have apparel deals with Nike that cover all sports.

The final Directors’ Cup standings for 2012 will be released in late June.

Finishing in the top 25 this year remains a distant – but suddenly, tantalizingly attainable – possibility for N.C. State.

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