Remember the old days when UK women’s basketball team, then known as the Lady Kats, had freshman star players like Valerie Still, Lea Wise and Patty Jo Hedges, a group who helped 14th-ranked Kentucky finish with a remarkable 24-5 mark during the memorable 1979-80 season?
And their head coach was 29-year-old Debbie Yow (pictured), who is now athletics director at North Carolina State, a post she has held since 2010.
Dr. Yow — who last week made the Forbes list of Most Powerful Women in Sports, ranking 16th on the list — has lots of fond memories during her four-year stay at Kentucky where she posted an overall coaching mark of 79-40 despite struggles to upgrade the women’s hoops program with a very limited budget and scant media coverage.
“It was a different time, one when a young coach could grow with the sport,” said Yow recently. “So, the nine or so head coaches in women’s basketball in the mid-to-late ’70s were the first-ever full time ones, most with no teaching responsibilities, and most of them quite young…Texas, Kentucky, NC State, Tennessee Tech, ODU and UCLA.
“This was a time when women’s sports were not part of the NCAA. Rather, they were part of the AIAW, the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. The recruiting rules were strict. You could have tryouts on campus, but no paid recruiting visits. That rule was one that annoyed a number of us and eventually the NCAA decided to take the programs under their jurisdiction, around 1980, putting new rules in place.”
What was her UK paycheck like? She was asked.
“Like $9,000. $11,000. $18,000 and finally $25,000,” recalled Yow. “I thought I was rich.”
Yow said the wife of former UK President Otis Singletary was instrumental in getting the coach’s salary increased.
“Gloria Singletary had a hand in this raise,” added Yow. “(With that pay) I could hardly believe a woman could earn a living as a collegiate coach.”
She recently visited Lexington, taking a tour of UK campus, especially the Joe Craft Center and the Wildcat Coal Lodge, and got in touch with her former staffers.
“We were in town to walk through the basketball residence hall, which was impressive,” she said. “My four-year assistant coach at UK, Diane Beauchamp, still lives near Lexington. She was originally from Georgia, came there for graduate school and settled in Lexington, raised children there and never left. No one ever had a more dedicated assistant coach. She loves horses and that was one additional attraction to staying in Kentucky and teaching high school.”
Yow also posed with the statute of Joe B. Hall in front of the Wildcat Coal Lodge for a picture. And she has a couple of stories about then-UK men’s basketball coach. She’s still thankful to Hall for what he did.
“Coach Joe Hall gave me $200 in 1977 to spend while in Europe coaching an All-Star team,” commented Dr. Yow. “(Then) $200 was a lot of money to me, so I never forgot his kindness.”
Another Hall story took place shortly after Kentucky had won the men’s national title in 1978. Hall and his wife hosted a small gathering at their home, and they invited the women’s coach, who admitted that she was honored but surprised to have an invitation to attend the function.
During that time, Yow was diligently recruiting a talented post player, Jerilynn Harper, a two-time Parade All-American from Tennessee, believing the 6-1 center would be a perfect fit for the Lady Kats.
Said Yow, “At the party at Hall’s residence, I started thinking about Jerilynn’s recruitment and decided having Coach Hall speak to her would be impressive. Getting up the courage to ask him to do that was something else altogether. As it turned out, I should not have worried. When I asked him, he was entirely gracious. We pulled a phone by its cord (there were no cell phones at the time) into a small, quiet area adjacent to the party so that she could hear him. It turned out that she was home and he was able to say hello and to advise her of the reasons why choosing Kentucky would be smart. She was impressed that he was talking to her.”
But Harper signed with Tennessee and eventually transferred to Tennessee Tech, also a powerhouse in women’s basketball back then. She became an All-American at Tennessee Tech and led the nation in scoring in 1981.
“For me, whether or not we were able to convince her to attend UK, the fact that he (Hall) was willing to speak to her was a story in itself,” added Yow, who is married to Dr. William W. Bowden. “Thirty-five years later, I have never forgotten his willingness to do that for me, as UK’s young coach, trying to build a program.
“She was quite a player and would have had an amazing career at UK had she chosen us.”
Leaving UK in 1980 was definitely tough for Yow, who had accepted a similar job at Oral Roberts. Then, in April of 1983, she moved to Florida, where she replaced future UK mentor Mickie DeMoss.
“I left (Kentucky) because of a family-related issue,” commented Yow. “I loved the job. (It’s) probably the most difficult professional decision I ever made, actually. I knew the team was set for three more extraordinary years. They did not disappoint as they blazed new trails.”
After two more years of coaching at Florida, Yow stepped down from the sidelines and went into the athletics administration at various schools.
Nevertheless, Yow — who had worked in fast-food establishments for one year or so after flunking out at East Carolina and before going to another college — has certainly come a long way in her career.
Many years ago in the summer of 1976, Yow — who had played basketball at North Carolina’s Elon College, where she served as a team co-captain in the early 1970s — was taking two graduate courses at the University of North Carolina while coaching in high school. That’s where she found out about the vacated women’s basketball post at UK.
While waiting for her car pool ride, she had seen a flyer about the Kentucky job that would change her life forever. But before getting the position in Lexington, she had to fight some stiff competition.
“There were over 200 applicants, I was told,” said Yow, whose sister, Kay, was the legendary head women’s hoops coach at North Carolina State before she died of cancer in 2009. “It was one of the greatest blessings of my life to be hired by UK. It was also the first year ever that scholarship money was available to a select number of players at UK. No one influenced me to take the job. My family thought it was too far from North Carolina. I rented a U-Haul to pull behind my car and off I went on this adventure to a new state.”
Needless to say, that Kentucky job actually marked the beginning of Yow’s successful journey to become an eventual national leader in collegiate athletics.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.