Bill Hass on the ACC: Kay Yow Had 'A Feistiness and a Fighting Spirit That Were Hot as Coals'
Jan. 30, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – There’s a certain risk in living a deeply religious faith.
An encouraging word, a kind smile, a generous gesture – all can be interpreted by some as a sign of being, to use the sports vernacular, “soft.”
Kay Yow probably packed more encouragement, kindness, and generosity into her 66 years than most people would in a lifespan twice that long. But anybody who knew her would scoff at a description of her as “soft.” A soft side, yes, but balanced with determination, courage and a fighting spirit second to none.
You want a tough fighter? Kay battled breast cancer for more than 20 years, living cancer-free for many years until it returned in 2004. She endured rounds of chemotherapy and various mixtures of drugs and chemicals that would have caused many, if not most, to give up. Setbacks knocked her down, but she always got up and forged ahead with what she needed to do.
You want passion? In March of 2007, not long after another bout of treatments, Kay summoned up the strength and energy to coach NC State for four straight days in the ACC women’s tournament. The Wolfpack didn’t win the championship game, but no one who watched her ignore the fatigue and keep working on the sidelines, sometimes short of breath, will ever forget her zest for coaching her team.
You want a risk-taker? Kay was a pioneer in working for scholarships for women’s athletics, in making sure her teams received new warm-ups instead of hand-me-downs from men’s teams, in helping establish the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and in always striving to make things better and not merely accepting the status quo.
Outside of Kay’s family, no one knew her better than Nora Lynn Finch, the ACC’s associate commissioner for women’s basketball. They became friends early in their coaching careers at different schools. Eventually, Finch became her assistant at NC State before becoming the school’s senior women’s sports administrator.
“She had a competitiveness about her that was fierce,” Finch said. “It was driving. She had a feistiness and a fighting spirit that were hot as coals. People saw her as genteel and a soft-spoken individual. What self-restraint that required (by her) because sometimes you would see the flicker in her eyes or hear the passion in her voice when she would speak.
“People would say she was the most inspirational speaker they ever heard. Kay was a passionate woman about the things she loved and when she spoke she spoke from the heart, and that heart was flaming. She could be feisty, but always respectful. Pretty nice combination.”
Among the many things Finch said Kay taught her was a simple rule of life.
“If you will help other people achieve their dreams and goals, they will help you achieve your dreams and goals,” Finch said. “These days it seems we’re so busy planning our own career that we step on people instead of realizing they’re not in the way, they are teammates to get where we want to go. Kay understood that, she lived that.
“Kay knew where she was and where she wanted to be. One of her greatest gifts was not only being able to recognize where people are today but to envision and see where they would be, who they would become. It was one of the things that gave her patience in coaching young people. She never was satisfied with the current state of things – she wanted things better, she wanted things fairer.”
The guiding force in Kay’s life was her rock-solid faith. It shaped the way the lived her life and treated others.
“Christianity is really not a religion, it’s your lifestyle,” Finch said. “She believed that, she lived that. As a result she was patient, she was generous, kind, accommodating, humble. She drew her strength through the Holy Spirit, from the scriptures, from helping other people. People would talk about how much she helped them, when in reality Kay would say ‘I received so much more than I ever gave.’ She understood that the way you receive is by giving.”
Kay’s faith helped her cope with the difficulties of her illness. She had watched her mother, Lib, battle cancer in the early 1990s. Lib’s final hours were spent with her family gathered around her, reading her favorite scriptures, singing and playing her favorite hymns. The scene left a deep impression on Kay.
“I watched Kay over these last few years gain comfort from scriptures as well,” Finch said. “She has always been studious about her Bible. She relied heavily on the comfort and words of God through the scriptures and she relied a lot on Christian music to help soothe her, and it gained her comfort.
“Her final night was very similar to her mother’s, where her favorite scriptures were read and her favorite hymns were played. I was in Florida and was not there, but I was told her favorite hymn was played and as it ended there was one more breath and peace came over her.”
In a clinical sense, Kay Yow lost her battle with cancer. But you can also think of her life in a basketball sense. She extended it into many overtimes, sometimes when the odds looked impossible. In the end, she may have run out of time, but she didn’t lose. And her legacy of how to live a life will endure.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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