NCSU Hall of Fame

Tudor: Kay Yow's spirit lives on

ctudor@newsobserver.com October 4, 2012 

Several days before Kay Yow coached her first game at N.C. State, she was asked if women’s basketball could someday match the popularity of men’s competition.

Yow said she couldn’t forecast the future.

“But,” she said, “I do know nothing can be accomplished if you just say something’s not meant to be and just quit.”

That was in 1975. The Wolfpack women’s basketball program was a year old.

Yow, who was hired after leading Elon to a 57-19 record during the four previous seasons, was 32.

Yow never quit.

She lost her first game at State to UNC but won 19 that season and kept winning for the rest of her life.

Courtside, she won 737 times.

In the court of human admiration, she died an undefeated champion and continues to win more than three years after breast cancer took her life – but not the impact of her spirit – on Jan. 24, 2009 at the age of 66.

“People celebrate that spirit of her life now, but her life was such that she’ll be important to cancer research for a very long time,” said Nick Valvano, brother of the former State men’s basketball coach Jim.

Like Yow, Valvano was taken by cancer and both will be inducted into the school’s first Hall of Fame class on Friday night.

State athletic director Debbie Yow, one of two younger sisters to Kay, saw that unsinkable spirit during her last hospital visit with Kay.

“It was in mid January, maybe 10 days before she died,” said Debbie Yow, who was then the athletic director at Maryland.

“I honestly didn’t sense any major change in her health at the time, but obviously she was very sick.

“State was getting ready to play on that Monday night at Carolina and she wanted to stay awake to watch on television. She said, ‘My team is playing at UNC and that’s important.’

“Well, State played very well for a long time but Carolina made a comeback and tied the game, then won in overtime. Kay was very upset. I was upset. It was just very emotional. I got so caught up in the emotions that I said to her that Maryland was playing UNC on Jan. 25, and I promised her that Maryland would beat UNC for her.

“Now that was not really smart, because UNC was ranked something like second in the country. They were very good, one of the best teams in the country.

“So then I had to go back to College Park and tell our coach, Brenda Frese, that I’d promised my very sick sister a win over UNC. You can imagine the expression on Brenda’s face.”

On Jan. 25, one day after Kay Yow’s death, the Terps upset Carolina.

“Brenda called me and said, ‘This one’s for the Yows.’”

Coaching pioneer

Yow’s arrival at State, though hardly big news at the time, eventually was regarded as a landmark in the growth of women’s basketball.

She was among the first women’s coaches nationally to supervise a women’s program basically in the same manner that men’s programs operated.

Nick Valvano said that fact made a quick and lasting impression on his brother when Jim left Iona to take over the Wolfpack shortly after the end of the 1979-80 season.

“I remember Jim saying something like one of the first things he needed to accomplish was getting the State men’s team to win with the same consistently Kay had the women’s team winning,” Nick Valvano said.

That ’79-’80 season ended at 28-8 for the women.

After going 19-7 in her first season, Yow’s following four teams finished 21-3, 29-5, 27-7 and 28-8.

“When the ’83 (men’s) team won the national championship, I know Kay was one of the first people to give him a call,” Valvano said. “They were big fans of each other. Jimmy definitely admired the way Kay prepared her teams and handled the games.”

Much like Everett Case had done in the men’s division, Yow’s success at N.C. State served as motivation for other area and ACC teams.

Eventually, North Carolina hired Sylvia Hatchell to build a national power and Duke emerged as an annual top-10 team.

After Hatchell’s ’93-’94 Tar Heel team won the NCAA title on a dramatic shot by Charlotte Smith against Louisiana Tech, Yow praised her rival school’s success.

“This is a great accomplishment for Sylvia and her program, and it’ll be a great boost for interest in our sport, too,” Yow said.

Message of hope

When Yow was first diagnosed with cancer, she made the decision to become a public figure in a quest to raise funds for research.

“I think doing this could be sort of a small way for those of us with breast cancer to try to unify and support each other the way basketball teammates do,” Yow said.

“But from (a) selfish standpoint, I guess, I just know that trying to be some sort of spokesperson and being pro-active will be positive mental therapy for me.”

As the years went along and Yow’s condition fluctuated, he became a beacon for cancer patients.

Upon her death, the Associated Press reported that Yow’s faith increased even as the disease progressed and routinely talked about “patients with harder battles than I’m fighting.”

Dr. Mark Graham, who helped with Yow’s treatment, said during the funeral ceremony that the coach “understood that keeping going was inspirational to others.”

The school Yow loved will celebrate that spirit, that model of inspiration this weekend. And no doubt, there will be a few pink ribbons in the audience.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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