Yow Remains A Breed Apart

September 07, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Debbie Yow always has been a little claustrophobic when it comes to life's experiences, whether it meant becoming a cheerleader in an athletic family when she was growing up or becoming an administrator at the height of her career as a college basketball coach 20 years later.

It has led Yow down a different path throughout most of her 44 years and ultimately brought her here, to the University of Maryland, where she was hired as athletic director three weeks ago, becoming the first woman named to the job in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I think, being the middle child, you have to carve out your own identity," Yow said last week in her Cole Field House office. "I didn't like being put into that little box and people saying, 'This is who you are, and this is what you have to be.' "

Not quite the middle child in a family with four kids, she was the second of Hilton and Elizabeth "Lib" Yow's three daughters. Eight years younger than Kay, now going into her 20th season as women's basketball coach at N.C. State; four years older than Susan, in her second year at North Carolina-Wilmington after stints at Kansas State, Drake and East Tennessee State.

Following her big sister was never easy, first as a basketball star in Gibsonville, N.C., a small, tobacco-mill town between Greensboro and Chapel Hill, or later as a high school and college coach. When Yow feels the walls closing around her, she has a tendency to push them aside to see what else is there.

It happened initially when she was 12.

"Debbie was in junior high, and she came home one day and said she wanted to be a cheerleader," recalled Susan, who was 8 at the time. "Nobody in our family had ever been a cheerleader before. But Kay had been such a big basketball star, I think she wanted to do something different."

The Yows long had been a basketball family. Hilton and Lib, who died last year after a 6 1/2 -year battle with cancer, got their jobs in the mills by playing on the local AAU team. A cousin, Virgil, coached at High Point College and put a woman on the men's team in 1948.

In ninth grade, school rules changed, making Debbie Yow choose between leading the cheers or getting them. She picked the latter, going on to become a star herself.

"Debbie was always a competitor," recalled Kay, who was coaching at a rival high school at the time. "She was never the type who'd look at the other team and think, 'They're too tough.' She was an awesome team player."

Flower child; then an abortion

But this conformity thing could last only so long. The walls began closing in again during Yow's two years at East Carolina.

It was the late 1960s, when some colleges began getting reputations as "party schools." The Yows always had stressed to their children -- including Ronnie, who went to Clemson to play football -- the importance of a college education. Debbie Yow enjoyed East Carolina, maybe a little too much.

"I was a wild child," said Yow.

And maybe a bit of a flower child as well. In a 1991 interview, Yow admitted to recreational drug use ("it was part of my generation," she said). She dropped out when her parents refused to pay her tuition because of poor grades. After a brief trip to California -- where else? -- she wound up moving back home, working menial jobs for a couple of years before she finally figured out what she wanted to do.

"I wanted to teach English and coach," she said.

So she joined Kay, by then coaching at Elon College near Greensboro. She graduated in three years with honors. For the ** last two years there, the Yows were joined by their little sister. The team went 24-0 in 1973-74 before losing in the regionals of the AIAW tournament. The star of the team was Susan; the heart of the team was Debbie.

"It was one of the most special years I've coached," Kay said. "I have more memories from that team than just about any I've coached. Debbie was an example for the players on that team. She'd do anything to win."

Those years helped smooth the relationship that had developed bumps when the high school teams Kay had coached never lost to Debbie's Gibsonville squads. It was during her first year at Elon that Debbie went through another experience that would have a dramatic effect on her life: She had an abortion.

"I had an abortion at a time when there was no counseling available," Yow told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1991, a few months after becoming the athletic director at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school. "No one ever explained the process or went over any of the options. I don't know what I would have done if anyone had talked to me about the alternatives, but I still can't believe no one did."

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