At this stage of the season there seems to be a very good chance that the No. 1 women's team in North Carolina will be North Carolina State. Its coach? Kay Yow. In the AIAW Southern Regional playoffs, State is likely to meet the University of Kentucky. Its coach? Debbie Yow. Odds would seem to favor State, if only because of Kay Yow's assistant coach. And who is that? Susan Yow.
The family name Yow, which is German, has been prominent in North Carolina basketball circles for almost 40 years. Both Hilton and Lib Yow were high school stars in the 1930s and they passed on their love of the game to their three daughters, all of whom also were outstanding players. For the past three years Kay, 34, has been the most successful college coach in North Carolina. In 1974 and '75 she led little Elon College to the state title, and last year, her first at N.C. State, she took the Wolf-pack to a 19-7 record and again won the state championship. Debbie, 26, is in her first season at Kentucky and has coached a team that was picked to finish next to last in the state to a 14-5 record. Susan, 22, was an All-America at Elon in '75 and last year at State before joining Kay as assistant. Tennessee Tech Coach Marynell Hutsell says, "They haven't received national recognition yet but you can count on Yow teams being well coached, very aggressive and winners."
The three sisters and brother Ronnie, 28, a former Clemson football player, grew up in Gibsonville, N.C. (pop. 2,490). Hilton Yow, who works in a nearby tobacco factory and owns a furniture warehouse, played basketball at Gibsonville High in 1938, while Lib, who owns a beauty shop next door to their three-bedroom home, was a standout on the women's team. "In those days we played up on the stage in bloomers, and I was a high scorer only because I was taller than the rest," says the 5'8" Lib Yow, who eight years ago, at age 46, gave up playing after breaking both her wrists in a pickup game with 5'10" Susan and 5'7" Kay.
The elder Yows also starred for local mill teams, and with this background it is not surprising that their daughters learned to shoot the net off the basket. At Gibsonville High, Kay was MVP and an all-conference forward four straight years. She still holds the school record for most points in a game (52), but 13 years later, to her delight, Susan broke her other records and retired No. 14, which had been worn by both Kay and Debbie. "Susan was so good they didn't even mention that Debbie and I had also worn 14," says Kay. Debbie, 5'9" and the most competitive of the sisters, agrees that Susan, whom she calls Punk, is a complete basketball player. "She is such a natural athlete that she can take one look at a sport like swimming and two minutes later win a blue ribbon. But," adds Debbie, "Kay is the best coach. She has so much patience that I sometimes think she is a saint."
Along with winning trophies, family loyalty is obviously also a Yow tradition. The Kentucky and N.C. State schedules are both in Hilton Yow's wallet, and when Debbie was hired by Kentucky he promptly rushed to the backyard and painted the family basket Wildcat blue to go with the Wolfpack red pole and white backboard. After each game the sisters discuss their wins—and rare defeats—on the telephone and critique game plans. Kay designed a defense for Debbie that helped Kentucky beat Morehead State, and at a recent tournament in Mississippi, Debbie scouted N.C. State opponents for Kay and Susan.
In 1964, after Kay graduated from East Carolina University, where she majored in English, minored in library science and was an honor student, she went on to Allen Jay High School in High Point, N.C., only 30 miles from home. There she was the librarian, English teacher and winning basketball coach. However, to take her team to three conference championships she had to beat archrival Gibsonville, where Debbie was the star and captain. "We were always favored to win but Kay double-teamed me and we lost to them three straight years," says Debbie, who was so furious after each defeat that for days she refused to talk to her older sister.
Kay still feels responsible for Debbie's disappointment, and to avoid a similar conflict with Susan she returned to Gibsonville High to coach. In Susan's freshman year the team was 1-19 but the Yow coaching touch turned things around and the Yellow Jackets finished third in the state as Susan averaged 29 points a game. The next year, 1971, Kay moved two miles down the road to Elon, where she started the women's intercollegiate program and in the off-season became an All-America Softball pitcher.
Meanwhile, Debbie was having problems at East Carolina, which she had chosen because Kay went there. Unlike her sisters, Debbie enjoys dating and dancing almost as much as basketball, and these "vices" got her into trouble. She quit the basketball team because it practiced on Friday nights ("dating time"), then quit school altogether. After Debbie had bummed around for two years as a cocktail waitress and a pizza parlor employee, Kay persuaded her to enroll at Elon. Also, Debbie had joined the Pentecostal Church, where her parents worshiped. "I know it sounds corny but religion put things in perspective for me," she says. "I hate to lose because I want to win too much but finally I learned to accept things that happened to me."
After Debbie returned to school at Elon, the family ties were tested when Kay kept Debbie on the bench while starting Susan. "I know it was a painful decision for Kay," says Debbie, "but she actually did me a favor. As a coach I now know how it feels to play second string and I can relate with the kids." After graduating from Elon, Debbie coached Eastern Guilford (N.C.) High to a 25-3 record and a third-place finish in the state.
Last summer Debbie was chosen over 200 other applicants to coach at Kentucky, but after losing to Tennessee 107-53 in the season opener she thought she should be fired. "I'd never been blown off the court before and I couldn't believe what was happening," she says. Worse, the game was played before 8,000 fans, including her folks, who had driven six hours to see the new coach. After the game her dad told her she played the wrong defense, which she had (Olympian Pat Roberts got loose for 51 points) and then Kay called and said, "Debbie, view this as a temporary setback. Surely they can do better." Surely they could and with a nervous coach popping up and down on the bench they won their next three games and then upset fourth-ranked Tennessee Tech 72-70.
After this win Debbie heard from Adolph Rupp, who asked, "Yow, what are you trying to do, beat my record?" Debbie would like nothing better, and she now thinks the team will win 75% of its games and finish second in the state to qualify for the Southern Regional in March. If so, N.C. State, 15-1 and No. 8 in the country, will probably be Kentucky's opponent in the Yow family showdown. "My dad is used to us competing but my mother is not going to like it at all," says Kay. Susan adds, "I don't want to knock Debbie out but Kay deserves to win. Wherever she's gone she has made things happen and it's time for her to receive national recognition."
As Susan observes, sister Kay directs the show.