Departing a Cary restaurant following dinner last spring, Wes Moore simply asked about the timetable for filling the position he sought. That’s his version, anyway. His boss had a somewhat different take. “‘So, you haven’t offered me the job,’” Debbie Yow, the N.C. State athletic director, recalled his comment. “Does that mean you’re not going to offer me the job?’ I loved that. I found it to be endearing.”
Whatever was said, an answer in the affirmative was delivered several days later by Yow. Since then Moore’s combination of experience and no-nonsense coaching has proved a winning tonic for Wolfpack women’s basketball. Inheriting a veteran unit that was 17-17 last season under predecessor Kellie Harper, and 70-64 during her four years at the helm, Moore has directed N.C. State to a 23-5 record, 10-4 in the ACC. His 13th-ranked squad hosts undefeated, second-ranked Notre Dame at Reynolds Coliseum Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the regular season finale for both clubs.
“They’ve been great,” Moore said of his team, which is led by 6-5 senior center Markeisha Gatling (17.4 points, 7 rebounds per game) and senior forward Kody Burke (15.1, 6.1), a three-time Academic All-American. “They’ve bought in. The seniors, in particular, wanted a change before they left.”
Compounding the challenge as tournament competition beckons, ACL injuries recently ended the seasons of starting guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman, the squad’s top 3-point threat, and backup center Lakeesa Daniel. Undeterred, the Wolfpack proceeded to beat Virginia at home and Pittsburgh on the road.
“What he’s done with the players on the roster at N.C. State, everybody around the country is talking about it,” an admiring Debbie Leonard, the former Duke women’s coach and current TV basketball commentator, said of Moore in a phone interview from Louisiana. “He’s absolutely done a great job.”
But there’s another aspect to the conversation, one that’s simmered since the NCAA muscled aside the pioneering Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) in the early 1980s.
At the time Title IX was enacted in 1972 mandating equal opportunity, women’s sports were run by women and generally shunned by the men who ruled the college roost. Most women’s teams were coached by females, just as virtually every men’s team is coached by a male. But under NCAA auspices women were increasingly displaced as coaches, a fact lamented by pioneers such as the late Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame N.C. State women’s.
“It’s a contentious debate,” Leonard said. “But in the end, I think it’s such big business, and administrators have to cover themselves, and they say, ‘We’re going to hire the person who’s going to do the best job, whether it’s male or female.’ But where we came from in women’s athletics, now that we’ve established ourselves and there’s so much more money being thrown into our programs, that’s when the men have really started to want to coach women’s sports.”
Administrators in other walks of life adopt much the same best-for-the-job rationale for hires that aren’t particularly inclusive. That doesn’t mean the decisions are discriminatory. They just make the climb steeper for those outside the power structure, which in collegiate sports remains very much a good-old-boys realm.
Late in 2013 the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center For Research on Girls & Women in Sports rated 76 schools in six major football conferences on how well they did in hiring women to coach women’s teams. Only eight schools got grades of “B” or higher. The best performer, Cincinnati, had females directing 80 percent of its women’s programs. N.C. State was among the four lowest-rated programs in the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC at 16.7 percent.
The ACC’s quotient of men coaching women's teams has gone from one to three among schools in the league for the 2010-11 season, and to 4 of 15 since Syracuse joined.
“Most college men are coached by men, but less than half of college women in the biggest and most visible programs are coached by a female head coach,” Nicole M. LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center, told USA Today. “Therefore, women are not often visible role models in schools that are most often in the public eye.”
Debbie Antonelli, a TV basketball commentator who played for Kay Yow at N.C. State, conceded opportunities have dwindled, but challenged women to make themselves tougher to turn down for employment. “I think we women need to work harder,” she said. “I don’t think the Tucker Report should be an excuse for women. I think it should be a motivating force for women. If you want to coach, if you want to be a head coach, you’ve got to get yourself ready. If there was a person of equal caliber to Wes that Debbie could have gotten at the same price, she would have taken a woman. I’m sure of it.”
In the mix
Debbie Yow was not familiar with the Tucker Center report. But as one of only three female athletic directors in the big-time football conferences, she was acutely aware that each of her hires to coach an N.C. State women’s squad – in basketball, soccer and softball – was a man.
“What people don’t know is, there were women in the mix each time,” she said matter-of-factly. Noting her previous stops as AD, Yow added, “I have a history of hiring women at Maryland all those years, and at St. Louis, and not at N.C. State. I obviously like to see women coaching other women. However I will not sacrifice, I will not hire a lesser professional so that I can say I hired a woman.”
Moore demanded less compensation than some female candidates (a total package of $400,000 annually, according to Yow). That’s not to say he is any less accomplished. The Dallas, Texas, native spent two seasons as an assistant under Yow’s older sister, Kay, at N.C. State in 1994 and 1995. Otherwise he’s been a successful head coach for 25 years, compiling a career record of 581-174. Moore, 56, is the only coach ever to take teams from Division III, Division II, and Division I to the NCAA tournament. When the 2014 Wolfpack gets a bid, it will be the 17th of his career.
Moore caught Debbie Yow’s eye because “he seemed to be a classic overachiever,” she said. “I was looking for a coach who believed in his or her heart that we could return to national prominence.”
Moore admitted he overachieved. “I guess you’d base that on my looks and my intelligence,” he said puckishly. Moore actually accepted the head coaching position at East Carolina in April 2010, only to change his mind after two days and return to UT-Chattanooga. Three years later he was intrigued by the potential at N.C. State. “He said I could do this if you give me the chance,” Yow said. “He wanted the opportunity to coach at the highest level in the toughest league.”
In 15 years at Chattanooga, Moore cemented a reputation for teaching fundamentals, adapting to personnel and imposing strict team discipline. Junior guard Len’Nique Brown, a transfer playing for her third coach in four years, said she and her teammates appreciate his down-to-earth approach. “He tells you what he’s thinking, he doesn’t sugarcoat it,” said N.C. State’s assist leader this season (4.5 average). “He’s going to tell you exactly how he feels, what he wants. He’s everything I would want in a coach.”
Which, after all, is a recommendation that transcends gender.