Jan. 24, 2009

Kay Yow was around at the start of the debate. It's just one measure of how influential she was to women's sports that three decades later, even at the moment of her passing at age 66, Yow's insistence that how you win was as important as whether you win never seemed more relevant.

She was two years out of graduate school and just beginning to carve out a career as women's basketball coach and athletics coordinator at tiny Elon College in North Carolina when the groundbreaking piece of legislation known as Title IX was passed in 1972. But to pioneers like Yow, just as important as the promise of equal opportunity was the sense of responsibility women owed one another in developing a game of their own.

Some argued in favor of following the model long provided by men, focusing on competition, skill development and winning at all costs, the faster the better. Others argued for taking the high road, stressing cooperation, character-building and slow growth.

Both by example and through the force of her personality, during her long tenure on the bench at North Carolina State and her long fight against cancer, Yow proved over and over there was a middle ground. Few coaches won more and none, arguably, exhibited more grace doing it.

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who was a great friend as well as a great rival, recalled being only 32 and in need of some experienced help when she was named coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

"When I decided who my No. 1 one assistant would be, I knew that I had to choose someone who would be loyal, who knew the game, someone I could trust and someone with great wisdom. When it came time to make that decision, I picked Kay Yow.

"Kay had great wisdom. She had a special way of telling you things that you really didn't want to hear but needed to," Summitt said. "Kay was not a 'yes' woman."

A reminder of that didn't make it into the statement Summit released Saturday, but it's recounted in a fine tribute on ESPN's web site.

Summit had chosen two Lady Vols, Lea Henry and Cindy Noble, for the 1984 team and she rode them mercilessly in practice to let the rest of the players know that she meant business. One day after practice, Yow walked over and quietly asked Summitt "how much more do you think they can possibly do?"

"I remember shaking my head and saying, 'Good point,"' Summitt said. "And I backed off both of them. She was right. She made me a better coach just in subtle ways, in things she'd say to me."

It's no coincidence that as the women's college season is just beginning to hit its stride, one of the stories still generating headlines has to do with one Texas high school girls' team notching a 100-0 win on an opponent.

It's a sign that while young women are enjoying the same benefits from playing sports that their male counterparts have known for many more years - getting into shape and staying fit, the self-esteem that comes with mastering skills and accomplishing goals - the debate still rages over whether the cutthroat competitiveness that boys learn at an early age should be part of girls' games.

Embarrassed by the margin of victory in that Dallas-area high school game, officials at The Covenant School apologized and asked conference officials that the game be recorded as a forfeit.

"It is shameful ... that this happened," Kyle Queal, the head of the school, said in a statement. He added the forfeit was requested because "a victory without honor is a great loss."

Anybody who knew Yow knew exactly what he was talking about. She had a headstart on many of her contemporaries, growing up in a corner of North Carolina where women's basketball had taken root well before Title IX and once scored 52 points in a high school game herself.

But Yow always considered herself a teacher first and a coach second; standing out was always less important to her than pulling up everyone else struggling alongside. She never forgot the days when dollars for women's sports were so tight that she had to account for every towel her team took on the road.

When cancer intruded into her life, beginning in 1987 and stealing her strength, time, family and friends. she fought it without giving quarter or complaint. Such was Yow's standing among her peers that after she began the Kay Yow-WBCA Cancer Fund, she convinced both Summit and her archrival, UConn coach Geno Auriemma, to serve on the board of directors. Yow's longtime oncologist, Dr. Mark Graham, would have been surprised by anything less.

Impressive as her accomplishment on the court were - 700 wins in college, a gold medal of her own at the 1988 Olympics, induction into the Hall of Fame - they may be overshadowed by her tireless contributions to the fight against cancer. Naturally, Yow conducted that campaign the same way she coached.

"She could have tried to come into the clinic and be completely anonymous," Graham said. "She just wanted to be another patient. She was very open to sharing her experiences with others and being encouraging to others."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org