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Catching Up With … Maryland Ad Debbie Yow, On Her 10th Anniversary

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Bill Wagner
Annapolis (Md.) Capital

July 26, 2004 COLLEGE PARK — Ponder this question for a moment: What athletic program in the Atlantic Coast Conference has made the most progress, both financially and competitively, over the last decade? By any objective measure, the answer to that question is Maryland, and much of the credit goes to athletic director Debbie Yow. She celebrated her 10th anniversary at Maryland in July, and the list of accomplishments achieved on her watch is staggering.

An athletic department that was disorganized and dysfunctional by most accounts when Yow was hired in 1994 now generally works like an efficient, well-oiled machine. An athletic department that ran up a staggering amount of debt during the decade prior to her arrival is now fiscally responsible. An athletic program that fielded losing teams in most of the major sports is now competitive across the board.

Simply put, an athletic department that had become the laughingstock of its own league is now among the best in the country.

There were plenty of skeptics when former Maryland president William Kirwan appointed Yow, then the AD at St. Louis, to her position in College Park a decade ago. Some questioned whether a woman could succeed as an athletic director in a premier conference such as the ACC. Indeed, Yow battled massive complacency and some significant old-boy resistance within her own staff as she attempted to resurrect a department that was rocked by the death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986. She endured questions and criticisms from long-time boosters as she shook up an athletic program that was mired in mediocrity.

Maryland athletics had lost its spirit and focus in the wake of Bias' cocaine-induced death. Subsequent investigations revealed poor oversight and general improprieties within the department. The fallout was devastating, as university leaders enacted stricter rules that ended up contributing to the lengthy and sometimes embarrassing decline of the school's two revenue-producing sports, football and men's basketball.

Veteran basketball coach Lefty Driesell was forced to resign amidst the post-Bias turmoil. Legendary football coach Bobby Ross quit, at least in part because he didn't think he could win in the new climate. It took many years for either program to recover.

In retrospect, it's a wonder that Yow accepted the job as Maryland's athletic director. Her four predecessors — Jim Kehoe, Dick Dull, Lew Perkins and Andy Geiger — had lasted an average of 3.5 years in the AD role. None of them adequately addressed an operating deficit and facility debt that ultimately reached a combined $51 million.

A decade ago, Yow was shocked to discover that Maryland ranked last in the ACC in booster contributions ($1.3 million) and total fundraising ($2.4 million) for athletics. The Terrapin Club booster organization numbered just 2,000 members and wasn't very productive.

"I knew this job had tremendous potential and a tremendous number of problems," Yow said recently. "I would use the word 'daunting' to describe the situation I walked into. There was a lot of mistrust and little accountability."

Yow, 53, got her start in sports administration as an assistant athletic director at Florida, which had approximately 10 times the funding of Maryland. After spending four years as the AD at St. Louis, Yow allowed her love for the ACC to overcome her concerns about coming to College Park.

"Certainly," Yow said, "the opportunity to work at an ACC institution was the main draw."

A native of Gibsonville, N.C., Yow has strong and deep ties to the conference and its geographic footprint. She began college at East Carolina, completed her undergraduate degree at Elon, and took some graduate school classes at North Carolina. Later, immediately before accepting the AD job at St. Louis, she worked as an administrator at UNC Greensboro. Her brother Pete was a scholarship football player at Clemson, while sister Susan was the first Kodak All-American at N.C. State. Kay Yow, another sister, is the long-time women's basketball coach at N.C. State.

Debbie Yow replaced Geiger at Maryland in July 1994 and immediately attempted to change the attitudes and work ethic within the athletic department.

"What I found most prevalent is what I call the RC factor — resistance to change. There was also this negative 'woe is us' attitude," Yow said. "There was one group of people who never felt we could rise above what happened in 1986. There was another group that wanted to move forward but didn't know how, because there had been no consistent leadership."

Yow set about changing the culture of Maryland athletics, and early on that led to high turnover among staffers. Yow said most of those individuals left of their own accord and were not dismissed.

"We changed the management of the department," Yow said. "We set specific, measurable goals and demanded that people take responsibility. I think some folks were not prepared for the pace we set."

Yow created an intense, high-energy environment. She came up with the catch phrase "wired for 220," designed to describe the type of workers she wanted.

"We were looking for people who were excited, enthusiastic and focused," Yow said. "We wanted people who were loyal and vested in the goals of the department. Employees who stand around in the hallway drinking coffee and chit-chatting until 10 a.m. don't last long around here."

Historically, Yow has hired young, energetic staffers who help make up for a lack of experience with a strong work ethic. Jamie Pollard and Rob Mullens, now associate athletic directors at Wisconsin and Kentucky, respectively, were among Yow's early proteges. Many of the current assistant ADs at Maryland, such as Joe Hull, Cheryl Harrison, Michael Lipitz, Kathleen Worthington and Dave Haglund, are regarded as dedicated and diligent lieutenants. Each has lasted at least five years with the Terps.

"I am very proud that we have been able to develop a team of committed individuals who believe in our foundational values and work hard to achieve results in our key goal areas," Yow said.

For the most part, Maryland is meeting the initiatives that were published on the school's athletics website. They specifically address topics such as NCAA compliance, competitive excellence, fiscal integrity and facilities improvement.

Under Yow's direction, Maryland has achieved the following milestones:

  • the Terrapin Club has more than tripled in size, to 7,700 members;

  • general fundraising has reached $21 million, an increase of 250 percent;

  • the athletic department has balanced 10 consecutive budgets, after previous administrations went a decade without doing so;

  • the athletic department has paid off more than $38 million of inherited debt;

  • the men's basketball team captured the first NCAA championship (2002) in program history;

  • the football program snapped an 11-year postseason drought and advanced to three consecutive bowls, earning victories in the Peach and Gator;

  • Maryland teams have garnered 15 ACC championships, including in the two major sports of football (2001) and basketball (2004);

  • the women's lacrosse (seven times) and field hockey teams have won national championships;

  • Maryland's ranking in the Directors Cup, which measures overall competitive excellence, climbed from 57th to 19th;

  • U.S. News & World Report rated Maryland among the nation's top 20 athletic departments. Yow is particularly proud of the facilities improvements Maryland has made during her tenure. None was more notable than the construction of the $125 million Comcast Center, which replaced aging Cole Field House as the school's basketball venue and also houses most of the athletic department's office space.

    Also completed were a new soccer stadium (Ludwig Field), a new softball complex and a new field hockey/women's lacrosse stadium. Currently in the works are an $11 million expansion of the Gossett Team House for football and a $1.5 million renovation of Shipley Field for baseball. In the future, Yow would like to expand Byrd Stadium to 62,000 seats, with suites and a private club level.

    "It probably seems to people that we are being somewhat greedy about facilities, but the reason is that we went for a period of about 35 years without building anything," Yow said. "I believe facilities are the silent statement of commitment to an athletic program. We now have 27 varsity teams and almost 700 student-athletes. This department has an obligation to provide first-class, representative facilities for all of them."

    Yow also specifically mentioned the Varsity Team House, a locker room facility that houses four men's and four women's sports. It dates back to the 1950s and has not undergone a major refurbishment in quite some time.

    "It is staggering how inappropriate that facility is for Division I athletes," Yow said. "I'm ashamed we have that facility and am dedicated to improving it."

    Such facility upgrades are crucial to attracting and keeping good coaches. Yow feels she has steadily assembled the finest stable of head coaches in Maryland history. By far her most notable and successful hires have been Ralph Friedgen (football), who captured national coach of the year honors in 2001, and Brenda Frese (women's basketball), who was named national coach of the year immediately prior to joining the Terps.

    Friedgen, a Maryland alum, had been bypassed for many other Division I-A head coaching jobs during his time as Georgia Tech's respected offensive coordinator before Yow came calling. He has taken a program that managed just two winning campaigns from 1986-2000 and led it to 31 victories and three major bowl appearances over the last three seasons. Frese has revived a dormant program in just two years at the helm, leading the Terps to their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1992.

    Yow also is responsible for hiring several other head coaches — including Dave Cottle (men's lacrosse), Shannon Higgins-Cirovski (women's soccer) and Gina Lamandre (softball) — who have enjoyed success in College Park. In addition, Yow said she feels strongly that recent hires Terry Rupp (baseball), Pat Santoro (wrestling) and Andrew Valmon (track and field) will do well once their programs receive adequate funding.

    Of course, Yow's first major hire at Maryland did not work out so well. She tabbed a little-known Northwestern assistant named Ron Vanderlinden as head football coach after firing Mark Duffner. Vanderlinden brought enthusiasm and a solid approach to recruiting, but he did not possess the leadership or strategical skills to get Maryland to the next level.

    To her credit, Yow recognized that Vanderlinden was not the final answer and fired him after just four seasons.

    "As far as a do-over, if I could wave a magic wand I would have ensured that my first hire in football was a successful one. That still bothers me because it's my responsibility not to make mistakes," Yow said. "There's no question goals that were set were not met, and I had to do the right thing for the program and make a change. I corrected the situation."

    Yow said she takes some solace in the fact that numerous athletic directors with strong football backgrounds, including former Georgia AD Vince Dooley and current South Carolina AD Mike McGee, also have swung and missed when hiring head coaches for that sport.

    Yow initially signed a five-year contract at Maryland that since has been extended twice. The current deal, which reportedly pays a $225,000 annual salary, expires in 2008.

    "I could envision staying at Maryland for another 10 years," Yow said. "I'm 53, but I feel 35."

    That certainly wasn't the case in her early years at Maryland, when a frustrated Yow had to be talked out of leaving College Park by her husband, Dr. William Bowden.

    "Bill encouraged me to give it more time," Yow said. "I had a dream of transforming the department, and he pushed me to see it through."

    Yow, who recently celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary with Bowden, her second husband, admits Bowden has been a trusted confidant.

    "Bill has an extensive background in higher education leadership, and I trust his judgment," Yow said of Bowden, who is 10 years her senior. "I have found it valuable to bounce certain things off Bill. He often brings a different perspective to the situation."

    Several schools, most notably Kentucky and Baylor, have attempted to woo Yow away from College Park in recent years. She seriously considered Kentucky, where she was once the head women's basketball coach. Serving as an athletic director at such a well-heeled Southeastern Conference school would have meant a big-time salary and a much larger annual budget.

    Yow, who also was reported to be a candidate at UCLA and Tennessee, said she has remained at Maryland largely out of loyalty.

    "I have spent most of my waking hours for the past 10 years thinking about and dealing with goals related to this department," said Yow, who added that she and Bowden are building a new home within walking distance of campus. "I feel so vested and have such ownership, it's become personal to me at this point. I feel like I am part of Maryland."

    Upon the retirement of Washington's Barbara Hedges in January, Yow became the lone female athletic director at the major Division I-A level. She gradually has risen in stature to become one of the country's most powerful ADs, after serving in numerous important leadership posts.

    Yow served as the president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics in 2000-01 and served a four-year term on the NCAA Management Council. She did a stint on the NCAA Recruiting Task Force and just recently completed a one-year term as the chairperson of the ACC Television Committee. Yow also played a prominent role in the ACC expansion process.

    "The entire College Park campus was in favor of expansion, and not just because of the money," Yow said. "It was more about having a louder voice within the NCAA. If you have 12 schools working together as opposed to nine, you are naturally going to have more influence."

    Yow is now the second-longest-tenured athletic director in the ACC, behind Wake Forest's Ron Wellman, who was hired in 1993. She said she remains thankful to Kirwan for "taking a chance on me" and is grateful for the continued support of current Maryland president C.D. Mote.

    While Yow herself marvels at the progress made by Maryland athletics over the last 10 years, she still sees plenty of work that needs to be done. She talks passionately about the newly created "Fear the Turtle" campaign, which recently was initiated to help fund eight men's non-revenue sports. She also made good on a long-standing promise by adding two women's sports — water polo and competitive cheerleading — in order to gain 20 more scholarships for the likes of baseball, wrestling, track and golf.

    "Fear the Turtle" enables boosters to earmark donations solely for the use of scholarships in a specific sport, such as tennis. So far, 13 of the 20 scholarships have been privately funded.

    "We cannot have athletes rolling through here in the Olympic sports and having a horrific experience," Yow said. "This project is very dear to me, because I feel the pain of watching those teams struggling to compete in the ACC. If they are wearing Maryland jerseys, they deserve a fighting chance to be successful, and they can't do that without scholarships."

    Leave it to Yow to figure out another creative way to raise money. She once sold a home football game with Florida State for $1 million and has saved at least as much by getting the Board of Regents to approve a proposal to allow the athletic department to pay in-state tuition for out-of-state scholarship athletes. She has out-sourced Terrapin Sports Marketing, altered vacation pay and changed cleaning services — all in an effort to find more money to meet a $41 million annual budget.

    Upgrading the men's non-revenue sports is another step toward achieving Yow's goal of getting Maryland consistently ranked in the top 15 of the Directors Cup standings. She has numerous other goals that soon will be revealed as part of a new five-year plan.

    "I am pleased with where we are, but I am not satisfied," Yow said. "We have achieved a lot of our goals, but the goals are getting ready to be ramped up again. We need to maintain our focus and take this program to the next level."

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