UM's Yow thrives in '24/7' caldron of college athletics

February 15, 2010|By Don Markus | don.markus@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK — - Within minutes of announcing that she was bringing back football coach Ralph Friedgen for a 10th season at the University of Maryland, Debbie Yow's BlackBerry began to fill up with messages.

The first two, she said, were enough to take the pulse of a constituency that had become increasingly frustrated with Friedgen - as well as with Yow - toward the end of a disastrous 2009 season.

"The first e-mail said, 'This proves you're the best AD Maryland has ever had,' " Yow recalled of that early December day. "The second e-mail read, 'I will have you fired by 5 o'clock tomorrow afternoon and I'm going right to President Mote.' "

Whether Yow is the best athletic director in school history is difficult to judge, but she is likely not going anywhere, unless by her own choosing.

Maryland President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. said during an interview with The Sun that he would "gladly extend" Yow's contract if she asked. That deal, which pays her a base salary of $382,575 this year along with potential bonuses of up to $85,000, goes through 2013. Yow, who came to Maryland in 1994 from Saint Louis University in Missouri, will become the school's longest-tenured athletic director on Sept. 1.

Yow's position is "the most visible and public of all university administrators, maybe even more than the president," Mote said. "She's really done a remarkable job."

Having such public support from her boss is a testament to how Yow thrives in the high-pressure world of college athletics. As one of just three female athletic directors in a Bowl Championship Series conference, the 58-year-old Yow is the recipient of praise and a target of criticism among Maryland fans.

She expects her men's basketball and football teams to be among the top 25 programs. Yow retained Friedgen late last year but said he needs a winning record in 2010 to continue on a job that pays him $2 million annually. And the Terps men's basketball team - which is near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference - is expected to make the NCAA tournament next month.

Often labeled a micro-manager who has had public spats with basketball coach Gary Williams, Yow does not apologize for her style.

No 'popularity contest'
"Being an athletic director in today's world is not a popularity contest," she wrote in an e-mail to The Sun the day before sitting down for an hour-long interview. "It is about graduating athletes, balancing budgets, following NCAA rules, meeting the federal law requirements of Title IX and fielding competitive teams."

She balanced the athletic department's budget after inheriting a deficit in the tens of millions. And she says she demands results from the school's 27 sports by expecting the best from her coaches. During her tenure, the Terrapins have won 15 NCAA-sanctioned national championships - seven in women's lacrosse, four in field hockey, two in men's soccer, and one each in men's and women's basketball.

But her well-publicized verbal jousts with Williams were a troubling signal to some fans as well as the university's president. While Mote acknowledges that Williams and Yow "don't get along" personally, he says he spoke to both of them about maintaining a mutual respect professionally and being less public about their relationship.

For her part, Yow says she always has supported Williams and the basketball program. Williams declined to comment.

With the visibility of representing Maryland comes scrutiny, and Yow understands how she has turned into as much a lightning rod as Friedgen was last fall or Williams was before the basketball team made the NCAA tournament last season.

"The longer a nonproductive coaching situation continues, the greater and the more likely the focus shifts from the coach to the AD," she said, sitting in her Comcast Center office one afternoon last month.

Yow believes that the most vicious attacks directed at Friedgen, Williams and herself come mostly from what she calls "the fringe," in the form of anonymous Internet posts.

Sometimes, the sniping has come from within the walls of Comcast Center, and before that at Cole Field House, where Yow quickly gained a reputation as a hard-charging and book-balancing administrator whose department at one point had a higher turnover than the rest of the ACC schools combined.

Yow doesn't dismiss the micro-manager label completely.

"I think it's fair to say that I live by the principle that if things are going well in an area, it's likely that area gets a lot greater degree of flexibility. Why not?" she said. "When things are going poorly, am I going to take a much closer look at the situation and try to determine what's going wrong? Absolutely. I think that's my job."

'She's intense'
Yow, who calls the athletic director's position a "24/7" job, has been known to whisper messages regarding the next day's schedule on a staffer's office or cell phone in the middle of the night, and deluge some of her coaches with e-mails about their team's most recent performance.

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