Debbie Yow Is Stirring St. Louis University

ST. LOUIS - Deborah Yow is sipping coffee at the Saint Louis Bread Co. - her favorite place to stop for a cup on her way to work.

Between sips, she outlines with enthusiasm goals and plans for the athletic department at St. Louis University. She ticks off a laundry list that seems at least ambitious and maybe impossible.

She leans forward in her chair and spreads her arms, sort of like a coach cajoling the team in a huddle. That she coached basketball so long probably explains the move.

There's a lot about Debbie Yow, 40, that's harder to explain. Since becoming athletic director last August, she has been embroiled in a number of publicized controversies. Some critics have portrayed her as everything from a hard-bitten dragon lady whose zealous management style caused a rift with veteran basketball coach Rich Grawer. Others see her as an overly sensitive little girl who didn't fight hard enough to get the Billikens into the National Invitation Tournament.

Her fans contend she has done more for athletics at the university in nine months than her predecessors did in nine years.

Yow is one of only six women to head an athletic department among the 295 universities in NCAA Division I. Of the six, she is in the highest-profile program. This tidbit doesn't make her the most popular prom date among the good ol' boy network that pervades college sports.

"I knew up front that there would be some people who would scrutinize what I do much more closely because I am a woman," said Yow.

"That's a fact that I do my best to deal with. I'm not going to kid you, sometimes it's frustrating. If a woman is tough and assertive, she runs the risk of being labeled `a bitch.' If a man is tough and assertive, he's praised for doing his job well."

Yow didn't aspire to be one of a handful of female athletic directors. It just happened. She's been involved in sports from the time she was 8 in Gibsonville, N.C., population 3,000, and could handle a basketball well enough to sink a respectable outside shot.

In time, she became the first coach in NCAA history to lead three previously unranked women's teams - Kentucky, Oral Roberts and Florida - into the Top 20.

Maybe she was born to the job. Her parents, Hilton and Elizabeth Yow, played basketball in old AAU textile leagues. Her cousin Virgil Yow coached and put the first woman on the Hot Point College (N.C.) men's basketball team in 1948.

Older sister Kay is women's coach at North Carolina State. She coached the 1988 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal. Younger sister Susan is women's basketball coach at Kansas State. Older brother Ronnie played football at Clemson.

"To be honest with you, I think my husband had more to do with inspiring the girls in basketball than I did," said Elizabeth "Lib" Yow of their daughters. "I tried my best to get them to take music lessons. I tried first with Kay and then with Debbie, but neither one of them had any interest in the piano. When Susan came along, I just gave up."

Debbie Yow played several sports in high school. She excelled at basketball. She planned to play in college but by the middle of her freshman year at East Carolina, the only thing she seemed to excel at was socializing.

"I spent too much time partying," she says flatly. "And my grades reflected it. In those days we lovingly called ourselves flower children. We were very anti-establishment. I did recreational drugs back then like everyone else. To be honest with you, I don't know anybody who didn't."

She left college and headed to California. After the money ran out, Yow went back to Gibsonville. She divided her time among three jobs - Sears, Burger Chef and Pizza Hut. It didn't take long before she figured out what she didn't want to do for a living.

When she announced that she would go back to college, her parents announced that she would have to pay for it.

"When Debbie decided she wasn't going to pursue that opportunity at East Carolina, we felt she would appreciate an education more if she had to pay for it," said her mother.

Debbie enrolled at Elon College near home. She majored in English, student-taught at a junior high school and played basketball. When she was 22, something happened that changed her life.

"I had an abortion at a time when there was no counseling available. No one ever explained the process or went over any of the options. I went to a hospital in North Carolina, paid the money and had it done. I don't know what I would have done if anyone had talked to me about the alternatives, but I still can't believe no one did."

Eighteen years later, Yow becomes teary-eyed as she recalls the experience. She says the abortion was the worst mistake of her life.

It did force her to take a serious look at the way she was living. She didn't like what she saw. Even being a popular basketball star wasn't enough. She wanted something more.

Her mother recalled how a male friend of Debbie's suggested that they go out. Debbie thought they were going to a dance. They went to a Bible study meeting.

"Debbie came home and was real excited, explaining that there had been this change in her life and she had accepted Jesus Christ," Lib Yow said. "You could tell there was a difference. There was something about her face. You could just tell by the way she talked."

The Yows wondered about the particulars of the meeting. Debbie invited her mother to one.

"I found out it was the real thing," said Lib.

One by one, each member of the family became a Christian.

Debbie Yow says that while "she doesn't believe in shoving her values down other people's throats," her spirituality has sustained her though the roughest times of her life. It also has helped her to forgive her own mistakes and "given me the strength to forge ahead."

Forge ahead she has. Two years after Elon, in 1974, Kentucky hired her to coach women's basketball. With the Wildcats, Yow began to realize just how seriously some people take sports and what a business it can be. The day after the Lady Kats lost to Tennessee in double overtime, Yow found a cat on the steps in front of her apartment. Its throat had been slashed. The message was clear: Kentucky shouldn't lose to Tennessee.

"At first, all I could focus on was that cat and who would be so mean to do something like that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that to some people, their self-esteem is tied up in how well the team does. It's crazy in a way, but it's more to them than just a game.

"To me, it's serious because athletics are my livelihood. But it's not life and death. It's important to keep things in perspective. The key is to do the best you can do. That doesn't always mean winning."

At Kentucky, Yow married Lynn Nance, now University of Washington head basketball coach. When he took a job in Warrensburg, Mo., a year later, Yow left Kentucky to be with him. Eight months later, when they divorced, Yow became coach at Oral Roberts University.

In 1983, Yow married William Bowden, an English professor at the university. They spent part of their honeymoon recruiting in Oklahoma and part recruiting in New Mexico.

The marriage has been good. Each speaks of the other with affection and enormous respect.

Bowden on Yow: "I think I was a real stick-in-the-mud before I met Debbie, and because of her, I am less of one. My life was very comfortable, and I'm not sure that was so good for me. What I like best about her is that the person I know in private, the person who is supportive and caring, is the same person in public. What you see is what you get. She is the most focused and organized person I know."

Yow on Bowden: "He is the base of my entire support system. With Bill I am able to relax, which isn't something I can do that easily in my job. We were at dinner the other night, and I kept telling him how great it was just to be there with him. And he said, `What is so great about Red Lobster?"'

They've made sacrifices to make it work. Bowden gave up his tenured professorship of 19 years to move with his wife when she became coach at Florida. When North Carolina-Greensboro offered her a job as associate athletic director, Bowden agreed to move again. He went into business as an educational consultant, specializing in helping universities deal with accreditation problems.

The next move was to St. Louis.

Already, she has engineered St. Louis' move from the Midwestern Conference to the new Great Midwest for greater visibility, more television revenue and a more competitive schedule.

She has proposed the largest-ever athletic budget, $2.4 million, up from $1.8 million, to allow more for lower-profile sports. She assembled a recruiting manual so coaches are fully aware of NCAA rules and regulations. She helped restructure internal operations, securing computers to help the department run more efficiently.

Still, what stands out to some is her relationship with Grawer, coach of men's basketball, the highest-profile sport. Yow and Grawer contend that any so-called power struggle between them is more the making of the media than anything with substance.

"Have you ever disagreed with your boss?" asked Grawer.

Grawer applauds the job Yow has done, saying she has made major strides in getting the department on its financial feet.

He adds: "If any woman can do this job, Debbie Yow can."

Said soccer coach Joe Clarke: "She's quite a good AD. I have no idea why she's been under the gun. What I like the most about her is that she's willing to take some chances."

Yow has been criticized for pushing too hard in trying to secure key dates for the basketball Billikens. Ironically, some of the same detractors also chastised her for not pushing hard enough to get the team into the NIT.

Yow acknowledges her style might bother some. She admits that she is energized. She is also remarkably well-organized and focused. Her office is impeccable. Her appointment book is jammed.

"She's a charger, there's no doubt about that," said Randy Bobbitt, assistant athletic director. "It's as if she says: `Get on board with me or you're going to be left behind, because I'm going places and the department is coming with me.'

"She lays things straight on the table, and she expects you to do the same. A lot of people view her as being a hard task-master. She has high expectations, but she realizes there are limits."

"The fact that she's a woman presents some concerns that can be overcome very quickly through demonstrated resolve and effort," said Bill Carr, former athletic director at Florida who hired Yow as coach and promoted her to administration.

Yow's bosses, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, president, and provost Alice Hayes are tremendously supportive.

"I am convinced that we made a very good decision," Biondi said of his choice. "This has been confirmed by her vision and the way she has approached the position. Any new person - athletic director, coach or otherwise - comes with a new set of eyes and perspectives that some of the veterans don't always like."

Yow wants the basketball Billikens in the NCAA tournament. She wants the soccer team to continue its success. She wants other sports to be regionally competitive.

"Mostly I'm interested in being the best athletic department we can be with the best group of managers involved," she said. "I want to integrate the athletic program with the rest of the academic community - because, and I quote my idol, Dean Smith (North Carolina basketball coach), an athletic department is like the front porch of a house. If a person likes what he or she sees on the outside, they're usually interested in coming inside."