Raleigh, N.C. — An inspiration to thousands as she battled cancer while leading the North Carolina State University women's basketball team, Kay Yow died at WakeMed in Cary on Saturday morning. She was 66.
"One of the most beloved figures in N.C. State University history and one of the most respected coaches in the nation, Yow died peacefully this morning after a long, heroic battle with breast cancer," Annabelle Myers, assistant athletics director for media relations, said in a statement. Yow passed away at 6:40 a.m.
A public viewing will be held Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Colonial Baptist Church in Cary. A funeral will follow at 3 p.m.
Burial will take place Saturday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. at Gibsonville Cemetery in Gibsonville.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund and mailed to:
The V Foundation for Cancer Research
106 Towerview Court
Cary, NC 27513
Cary Alliance Church
4108 Ten Ten Road
Apex, NC 27539
Yow entered the hospital last week in what proved to be her last battle against the recurring disease with which she was first diagnosed in 1987 and that attacked again in 2004, 2006 and then last year.
She remained healthy enough to visit with her entire team at the hospital this week and was surrounded by family and co-workers, Myers said.
Yow once said that more than any accolade, she relished those close relationships with her players and assistant coaches, who became her surrogate family.
"I said a long time ago in my career that, if what I'm doing is just about W's and L's – wow, how superficial. I give my whole life to that?" she said. "No, it's about investing in people. If you just help one person in a small way, if they have a better life because of it, you know you've done something."
"Yow will be remembered for the hundreds and thousands of lives she touched through basketball and through her tireless efforts to fight cancer," Myers said.
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University officials asked that mourners place flowers or memorials to Yow at the Bell Tower, instead of Reynolds Coliseum. The U.S. Secret Service will take over the coliseum Sunday before a speech by President Bill Clinton Monday.
The university had announced Jan. 6 that Yow would take off the rest of this season to focus on fighting the cancer. She had missed four games before that, feeling ill.
During her 38-year, Hall of Fame coaching career, Yow won more than 700 NCAA games and an Olympic gold medal. She was one of only six women's basketball coaches to top 700 collegiate victories. Her teams won four Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, earned 20 NCAA tournament bids and reached the Final Four in 1998.
Yow's greatest victories came off the hardwood, however, as she repeatedly beat back the cancer and shook off the pain of the disease and the medical treatments to lead her teams. For many fans, Yow was best defined by her unwavering resolve while fighting for her own life. She raised awareness and money for medical research and stayed with her team through much of the debilitating effects of the disease.
"Coaching lifts me up," she once said. "Once the ball is tossed up, I forget pretty much about everything and just focus on the game. If I just do nothing, I feel like I'm giving in to the disease."
Birth of a coach
Growing up in the Alamance County town of Gibsonville, Yow didn't give in often. She was known for an intense competitive streak that stretched from the backyard to the classroom.
"Kay doesn't like to lose," her sister, Debbie Yow, athletic director at the University of Maryland, once said. "So, generally, if she loses, she's about the business of finding out how she can keep that from happening again."
Kay Yow – her first name was Sandra, but her mother insisted on calling her by her middle name because she didn't like the nickname "Sandy" – said she never tried to beat up on opponents and was never upset by a loss.
"I learned at an early age to compete with people, not against people," she said. "I've never had a (losing) feeling to a point that I couldn't be happy for somebody else. I feel God has blessed me with that ability."
The family was athletic by nature – brother Ronnie played football at Clemson University and sister Susan was an All-America in basketball at both Elon College and N.C. State – and Yow took to basketball early on. She would shoot hoops for hours in the backyard and play in intense pick-up games with relatives.
Yow once scored 52 points for her Gibsonville High School team, but few colleges had women's basketball teams in the early 1960s, so she gave up sports and went to East Carolina University to study English and library science so she could become a teacher.
After graduation, she landed a high school teaching job in High Point only after agreeing to coach the girls basketball team. Fearing she would fail in the task, she read books on coaching and talked to other coaches. She proved to be a quick study, compiling a 92-27 record in five years.
In 1971, she began her college coaching career at Elon. In four years there, she coached both her sisters, Debbie and Susan, and built a record of 57-19.
With Title IX, the federal law requiring equal opportunity for athletes of both sexes, taking hold in the mid-1970s, universities nationwide ramped up their women's sports programs. N.C. State brought in Yow to take over the women's basketball team, which had played only one season, as well as to coach softball and volleyball and oversee all women's sports as associate athletic director.
The university never looked back, as Yow racked up one winning basketball season after another and gradually ceded her other sports responsibilities. She won five Atlantic Coast Conference championships and four ACC Tournament titles and took her teams to more than 20 NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 1998.
She led the first U.S. women's victory over the Soviet Union at the 1986 Goodwill Games and coached the U.S. women to gold medals at the 1986 World Basketball Championship and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul – the first women's coach to win both.
"You give Kay a team of equal ability to someone else's team, and she will out-coach them nine out of 10 times," said Susan Yow, who now is a former college and professional basketball coach.
Taking on cancer
Yow met her fiercest opponent in August 1987, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a partial radical mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed.
She recovered in time to coach at the 1988 Olympics and, with the cancer in remission, continued to lead the Wolfpack women. In 2004, the cancer returned. Once again, she beat back the disease, using a combination of radiation and hormone treatments, and didn't miss any time on the sidelines.
The cancer made a third appearance in late 2006, forcing Yow to take a leave of absence at the start of the basketball season while she underwent chemotherapy. She would draw up strategies when assistant coaches came to visit her and would send them back to the team with words of encouragement. Her players wore pink shoelaces in their sneakers to show their support for her.
A weakened but determined Yow returned to the bench in the middle of the ACC season and notched both her 700th career victory and a win over archrival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before the UNC game, which was the last home game of the year, a ceremony was held to rename the court in Reynolds Coliseum on the N.C. State campus for Yow.
“She gives us incredible energy and inspiration,” Danielle Wilhelm, a former Wolfpack guard, said at the time. “She never stops fighting, so we can’t stop fighting.”
As a cancer survivor, Yow used her high profile to inspire others with the disease and to raise money for cancer research, including launching the annual Jimmy V Classic women's tournament and the annual Hoops for Hope game at Reynolds Coliseum as fundraisers and as means to honor those battling cancer.
Along with the V Foundation for Cancer Research – the organization founded by former N.C. State men's basketball coach and athletic director Jim Valvano before he died of cancer in 1993 – she founded the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, the first women's initiative undertaken by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association.
"Life has been a gift to me," she once said. "I need to make a difference in the lives of other people. If I'm not doing that, I've missed the whole point of my gift of life."
In July 2007, ESPN presented Yow with the inaugural Jimmy V ESPY for Perseverance, honoring both her and the memory of her friend.
Hall of Fame career
Yow was a founding member of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association in 1981 and served as one of its early presidents. The organization marked her passing on its Web site Saturday. Various organizations named her national coach of the year eight times during her career, and her pioneering role in women's basketball was recognized by the Women's Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
The highest honor came in 2000, when she was inducted into the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. – one of only five female coaches enshrined at the time. In her induction speech, Yow credited her success to others.
"My career has been made possible by many people who have dug wells from which I have drunk and by many who have built fires by which I have been warmed," she said.
Fellow coaches and players recognized her efforts as a trailblazer, however.
“Kay Yow has been a pioneer for women’s basketball," UNC women's coach Sylvia Hatchell once said. "She is using every ounce of her breath to fulfill what she feels is her purpose in this life – to help young people through her ability to coach basketball.”
“We all have gained wisdom and gleaned inspiration from the way she lives her life spiritually, the way she lives her life as a professional and how she has the ability to make a difference in someone’s life just by taking the time to be there for them," said Debbie Antonelli, a former Wolfpack player.