Carving My Own Path

Debbie Yow

Debbie Yow was the head women’s basketball coach at Oral Roberts University from 1981-83. She capped her two-year career in Tulsa by leading the Lady Titans to the most successful record in program history, a 26-1 mark in 1982-83. ORU placed third at the WNIT after completing a perfect 23-0 regular season. Yow was inducted into the ORU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.

I came from an incredibly athletic and sports-centric family growing up.

That doesn’t seem out of the ordinary in 2023, but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was far less common.

My parents were both athletic in their own right.

They passed down their athleticism and passion for sports to my siblings and me.

My first love was basketball.

In fact, my two sisters also fell in love with the sport.

My brother, on the other hand, earned a full-ride scholarship to play football from Clemson.

Needless to say, sports were a focal point in our household.

Looking back, I’m beyond grateful that I grew up with parents who instilled their love of sports in their children because I owe my entire career to that passion.

Before my playing days in college, coaching career, administrative career, and before Title IX even existed, I was simply a young girl who loved sports, specifically basketball.

And fortunately, that love and passion for the sport has never stopped fueling my soul.

An early dream

I was fortunate enough to play college basketball at Elon University.

It was a family affair, in fact, as my older sister, Kay, was the coach of Elon at the time. My sister, Susan, was also a member of the team and played with me.

Title IX was signed into law during the summer of 1972 while I was a student-athlete at Elon, but, unsurprisingly, I never really saw the immediate effects of Title IX during my time there.

It wasn’t until 1976 in Lexington, Kentucky, where I got to experience the impact of it up close — I was hired to be the full-time head coach at the University of Kentucky.

At the age of 25.

It felt like a dream back then and still feels that way today, all these years later.

It was a “pinch-me” moment, but it wouldn’t be my last.

Before my playing days in college, coaching career, administrative career, and before Title IX even existed, I was simply a young girl who loved sports – and specifically – basketball. And fortunately, that love and passion have never stopped fueling my soul.

Growing into the profession

Believe it or not, I took a $2,000 pay cut to coach at Kentucky.

I was making $11,000 a year teaching English and coaching high school basketball, and I made $9,000 in my first year at Kentucky.

There’s an old adage that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

That’s exactly what it felt like for me at Kentucky.

It wasn’t a job.

It was a gift.

After Kentucky, I made coaching stops at Oral Roberts University and the University of Florida, and was proud of the success those teams achieved.

At Oral Roberts, we finished the 1982-83 season with a 26-1 record. It was the program’s most successful season and led to my induction into ORU’s Hall of Fame in 2020. 

At Florida, we combined to win 41 games in two seasons and finished runner-up to LSU at the 1985 National Women’s Invitational Tournament.

Without a doubt, both stops had a tremendous impact on furthering my career.

But, after coaching a couple years at Florida, I began questioning how much longer I wanted to stay in the coaching profession.

I didn’t want to overstay my welcome, and I didn’t want to feel as if I was out of touch with the athletes I was coaching.

So, when a position opened up in their fundraising unit called Gator Boosters, one of the most successful in the nation, I took it as a sign.

Reaching the next level

While I enjoyed my new career in an administrative role and away from the sidelines, my goal was never to be an athletics director.

The thought never even crossed my mind.

Frankly, at the time, there was just no blueprint for women to be Division I athletic directors.

There were none I was aware of.

But, I kept getting my name out there.

In the fall of 1987, I took a position as the Assistant Athletics Director for External Operations at UNCG that really allowed me to dive into more broad-based fundraising, communications, and marketing.

Eventually, I was offered the chance to present at a conference in Kansas City with other college development officers.

With my busy schedule, I reluctantly decided at the last minute to attend, and I’m so thankful I did.

Before I presented, the vice president at Saint Louis University told me she’d love to hire a female athletic director at her school.

I responded cordially but focused on my presentation and didn’t think much about that conversation until I got a phone call a few days later.

That’s when I learned that she had nominated me for the athletic director’s position at Saint Louis.

To say I was stunned would be a vast understatement.

I was worried my gender minority status was the only reason I was being granted an interview, but I ultimately went through with the interview thanks to my husband, who asked me two important questions.

Question #1: Have you ever considered yourself as a token in any job interview?

Question #2: If not, why would you start today?

It was settled then.

I traveled to St. Louis for the interview, and before I knew it, I was the athletic director for Saint Louis University in 1990.

Remember what I said before about those “pinch-me” moments?

Well, this was another one.

Much-needed culture shift

After Saint Louis, I spent 16 years at the University of Maryland as the athletic director before spending the final nine years of my career back in my home state of North Carolina at North Carolina State University in the same position.

When I was hired at Maryland, not only was I the first female athletic director ever hired in the Athletic Coast Conference (ACC), but I went on to be the only female athletic director in the ACC for 22 years.

It’s not that women weren’t qualified for these positions – they just couldn’t get hired.

That’s why I’m thankful there’s been enough of a culture shift for women like Carla Williams, Desiree Reed-Francois, Heather Lyke, and Nina King to have been hired in the past few years and are current athletic directors in the ACC.

Speaking of culture shift, one story I’ll never forget is when I was at NC State and had a booster tell me that all his focus and attention was on the revenue sports in football and men’s basketball.

He didn’t care about any of our other sports.

Four years later, the NC State cheer team won the national championship in the all-girl category, and this same booster emailed me wondering if this championship counted for the Directors’ Cup?

It absolutely floored me.

I was so emphatically proud of him for not only acknowledging this crowning achievement by the cheer team, but caring enough to email me about it.

It just goes to show how women’s sports and Title IX have changed the hearts and minds of many throughout the years.

A life-long advocate

For all the progress that’s been made with women’s sports and Title IX, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

The area I have advocated for years to improve is the way scholarships are counted, which impacts participation rates.

For women, the scarcity of scholarship aid is enough to drive them from participation.

We continue to have “headcount” sports and “equivalency” sports.

I’d much prefer they use one or the other for all sports.

Then improve the numbers or amount offered in sports where it is obvious that more are needed.

That will drive participation, particularly for females.

That would be my challenge to my former colleagues and leaders across the country.

I’m retired from making those decisions, but I’ll always continue to be an advocate for women’s sports and do my part to make sure they receive the opportunities and recognition they deserve.

“Take delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

If my career has inspired anyone – especially women in sports – to follow their dreams and aspirations on a path that seemed impossible, that’s something that makes me smile, proud, and unbelievably grateful.