Longtime NC State women’s coach Kay Yow dies at 66
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State’s Kay Yow, the Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach who won more than 700 games while earning fans with her decades-long fight against breast cancer, died on Saturday. She was 66.
Yow, first diagnosed with the disease in 1987, died Saturday morning at WakeMed Cary Hospital after being admitted there last week, university spokeswoman Annabelle Myers said.
“I think she understood that keeping going was inspirational to other people who were in the same boat she was in,” Dr. Mark Graham, Yow’s longtime oncologist, said Saturday.
Yow won more than 700 games in a career filled with milestones. She coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988, won four Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, earned 20 NCAA tournament bids and reached the Final Four in 1998.
She also was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002, while the school dedicated “Kay Yow Court” in Reynolds Coliseum in 2007.
But for many fans, Yow was best defined by her unwavering resolve while fighting cancer, from raising awareness and money for research to staying with her team through the debilitating effects of the disease and chemotherapy treatments. In her final months, Yow was on hormonal therapy as the cancer spread to her liver and bone.
She never flinched or complained, relying on her faith as the disease progressed. She commonly noted there were other patients with “harder battles than I’m fighting” and said it was inspiring for her to stay with her team.
“Almost everybody is dealing with something,” Yow said in a 2006 interview.
“We’re all faced with a lot of tough issues that we’re dealing with,” she said. “We know we need to just come to the court and let that be our catharsis in a way. You can’t bring it on the court with you, but we can all just think of basketball as an escape for a few hours.”
Yow announced earlier this month that she would not return to the team this season after she missed four games because of what was described as an extremely low energy level.
The team visited Yow in the hospital before leaving Wednesday for a game at Miami. Associate head coach Stephanie Glance—who led the team in Yow’s absences—met with the team Saturday morning to inform them Yow had died, Myers said.
Graham remembered how Yow always took time to talk to other patients when she came in for treatments in recent years.
“She could have tried to come into the clinic and be completely anonymous,” he said. “She just wanted to be another patient. She was very open to sharing her experiences with others and being encouraging to others.
Yow’s fight was never more public than when she took a 16-game leave to focus on her treatments during the 2006-07 season. After her return, her inspired Wolfpack won 12 of its final 15 games with wins against highly ranked rivals Duke and North Carolina in a run that attracted plenty of fans wearing pink—the color of breast-cancer awareness.
Her players also wore pink shoelaces for their coach.
“There were so many times I felt like giving up,” forward Khadijah Whittington said after the Wolfpack’s loss to Connecticut in the 2007 NCAA tournament’s round of 16, “and then I see Coach Yow and she never gives up.”
Yow always found ways to keep coaching even as she fought the disease. She spent most of games during that emotional 2007 run sitting on the bench while Glance stood to shout instructions at players or to help a weakened Yow to her feet.
“She’s the Iron Woman, with the Lord’s help,” Glance said.
Yow was quick to embrace her role as an example for others battling the disease. She often found herself going about her daily activities in Raleigh only to have someone stop her and say they were praying for her or that she was an inspiration to them.
“When they say that, it really gives me a lift because it’s at that time I know for sure that I’m not going through it for nothing,” Yow said in 2007. “That means a lot to me. I have to go through it. I accept that, and I’m not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. But it just would be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn’t help people.
Born March 14, 1942, Sandra Kay Yow originally took up coaching to secure a job teaching high school English at Allen Jay High School in High Point in the 1960s. Her boss, along with the boys’ coach, agreed to help her plan practices and to sit on the bench with her during games. Midway through the season, Yow was on her own.
“Really, it was like love at first sight,” she said in 2004.
She spent four years there followed by another year in her hometown at Gibsonville High, compiling a 92-27 record. She moved on to Elon, going 57-19 in four seasons before being hired at N.C. State in 1975.
Her original cancer diagnosis came the year before coaching the United States to the gold in the Seoul Olympics. She had a mastectomy as part of her treatment, then discovered a lump in November 2004 close to where cancer was first discovered. She had surgery that December and started on a regimen of radiation and daily hormone therapy. Still, the cancer came back again and again.
She missed two games of the 2004-05 season while attending an eight-day nutritional modification program, which called on her to eat an organic-food diet free of meat, dairy products and sugar. She stayed on the diet for eight months, losing 40 pounds by keeping junk food and Southern favorites like biscuits and gravy off her menu.
Still, she cheated on her organic diet during home recruiting visits because she didn’t want to offend anyone by passing on a home-cooked meal.
Over the years, Yow never lost her folksy, easygoing manner and refused to dwell on her health issues, though they colored everything she did almost as much as basketball. Ultimately, her philosophy on both were the same.
“If you start to dwell on the wrong things, it’ll take you down fast,” Yow said in ’07. “Every morning, I wake up and the first thing I think of is I’m thankful. I’m thankful for another day.”