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Debbie Yow: Headed home in search of peace

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010; D01

Debbie Yow is on the other end of the phone in Raleigh, N.C., openly crying in a stadium press box at North Carolina State University, looking down at the football field where she will now spend her fall Saturdays. It is three hours before the public goodbyes to Gary and Ralph and everyone else, three hours before she officially gets off that 16-year ride of spills and thrills in College Park.

"I find myself thinking more about Kay now since she's gone," Maryland's former athletic director said, asking for a moment to compose. "I'm sorry -- this is the female AD you're talkin' to now."

No sense apologizing.

Most men would lose tears if they were returning to their home state, taking a big job where their legendary sister, who died of cancer last year, coached for 34 years.

Kay was the one who played aunt to the nieces and nephews, represented the Yow clan at the baptisms and birthdays, while Debbie was stuck at some Terrapin tournament game somewhere -- Bloomington, Charlottesville, Spokane, beyond, anywhere the soccer or lacrosse or basketball team was fighting to stay alive another afternoon.

She knew the deal when she became the first female athletic director in the ACC and Tobacco Road was no longer home; it became mostly a business trip.

No more.

"There comes a season in your life when it's time to move on, and that season for me is now," she said.

To ignore the accomplishments and longevity would be foolish. She lasted longer -- 16 years -- than the previous five Maryland athletic directors who served before her.

Since 1995, the Terps have won 20 national titles in six sports and who cares if one of them was competitive cheerleading. Bottom line, Yow presided over the most successful period in modern Maryland athletics.

And let's not give short shrift to her gender, either.

Just as when she was 10 years old, when the summer weeds muscled up through the court on Carolina asphalt, and she was called names by the boys who didn't want a girl playing basketball with them, Debbie Yow was a pioneer, a woman playing a man's game.

And like many male ADs at big-time Division I schools, where the football and basketball coaches don't like being told no, she might have resorted to Machiavellian survival tactics she felt she needed to do her job at Maryland.

So you can't ignore the last few, tumultuous years at Maryland, either, given the behind-the-scenes power struggles involving Yow and her highest-profile coaches.

Really, if Yow tried to secure financial backing from boosters to buy out the contracts of Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen at different times over the past 18 months, as The Post reported -- and that support either wavered, dried up or was never genuinely there -- didn't she have to go at some point? Especially with university President C.D. Mote Jr. retiring at the end of August?

In that light, Yow could no longer only be viewed as the "Aw, shucks" administrator, the bystander with a Carolina twang, caught in a web of monster egos, who just wanted her biggest earners to make sure all their kids graduate and, oh, by the way, keep winning and funding the non-revenue sports just like they always have.

Once Yow was vacillating on whether to keep the football coach, Friedgen and Williams probably realized the same thing: There was no allegiance to coaches Debbie had hired anymore. There was an AD hell-bent on survival, and if the money couldn't be found to buy out Ralph, well, Ralph and Gary now had something in common: Debbie had wanted them both out.

"I really wouldn't get into all that," Yow said yesterday, refusing to delve into hypotheticals. "Insofar as Gary is concerned, obviously a person who doesn't respect another individual doesn't nominate him for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame like I recently did. I just submitted his name so the Comcast Center court can have his name on it in script, with 2002 National Champions, or whatever Gary wants.

"Any issues we had were over graduation rates. Now that he's 100 percent [in graduating seniors] last year and 100 percent this year, he's on track. He's shown the ability to get it done in every way now."

She continued: "As far as Ralph, I will never apologize for expecting a certain level of excellence. He did a great job the first three years, but he's fallen off. I am still proud I hired him. And I believe he can do the job again in a way that keeps the boosters happy. I think this season could be a turning point in the way of a new direction.

"This isn't about Gary and Debbie or any of that. Look, I can't manage my reputation; the only thing I can manage is my character."

She moves on, to be closer to her brother who lives near Greensboro, and her younger sister, the women's basketball coach at Belmont Abbey outside Charlotte.

As for the men's basketball coach, "I wish Gary good things and, especially, peace of mind," she said right before we hung up.

Her words got me thinking.

Yow has said that same thing to me several times the past six years, always wishing Wiliams "peace of mind." And it finally dawned on me: Subconsciously, that might have been more of a projection than anything. Maybe, deep down, she's the one who always wanted that for herself. And no matter how good things got at Maryland, it remained as elusive as a misplaced set of car keys.

Today on that lectern in Raleigh, behind the tears brought on by a trip home to Tobacco Road, here's hoping she finds it.

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