Sometimes the big weeks just kind of sneak up on you. Certainly, just a month ago, Debbie Yow had no idea what this week had in store.
She spent yesterday in Indianapolis, the night's scheduled speaker for a large group of NCAA interns. Yow had hoped it wouldn't last too long because she was itching to return to her hotel room, fire up the laptop and check on a basketball score.
Kay Yow, eight years older than Debbie, made her return to coaching last night, rejoining her North Carolina State women's basketball team for the first time since November, when her battle with breast cancer forced her to take indefinite leave from the game.
Even as Debbie Yow was talking with school administrators in recent weeks, hammering out the details of a contract extension that will keep her at the school through 2013, a part of her was somewhere else. Here she was trying to secure her future, each night saying a prayer for her sister's.
"She's a champion," Debbie says of Kay. "I'm just so blessed."
The footprints the Yow family has made on college athletics will be noticed for a long time. Certainly, around College Park, Debbie Yow's work can be seen everywhere: in the trophy cases, the graduation reports, the department's bank account, the talented roster of coaches, in the $125 million Comcast Center and in the planned $50 million renovation of Byrd Stadium. The superlatives are justified.
When Yow first set foot on Maryland's campus in August 1994, no one could have envisioned the success that today threads its way through the 27 Terps programs. The department was $42 million in debt, its teams weren't achieving the level of success its fan base expected and there was no real growth plan in place.
"I am coming to the University of Maryland because I believe that the athletic program can become one of the nation's best," Yow said when she accepted the job. And in the past 12 1/2 years, it really has.
Running an athletic department isn't simple. In fact, there isn't a hat rack big enough. Last night for the group of interns, Yow was a lecturer. Sunday at Comcast Center, she'll be a cheerleader. When she talks to boosters and alums, she's a fundraiser. Whenever she opens a checkbook, she's a chief financial officer. And when a coach wants more job security, she's chief negotiator.
And Yow wears all of these hats as though they were custom-fit for her head.
There wasn't much time for reflection when Yow's bosses gave her the deserved vote of confidence with that contract extension - at least, not on her accomplishments at Maryland. In an interview yesterday, her reflection was aimed somewhere else, a time long before she first unlocked an office door at Cole Field House. "We were at Elon College ..." she began.
Kay was the head coach, Debbie the headstrong player. Kay yanked her younger sister out of the game, sending a sub in to replace her. As Debbie stormed off the court, she muttered - loud enough for the crowd to hear - "Mistake. I'm better than she is."
Kay snapped back. "Be quiet. Get on the bench. I'm your coach here, not your sister."
They still have a laugh over the exchange. It took a few years, but Debbie did eventually apologize for her behavior as a player. And Kay apologized for not being a better coach.
These days, neither has much to apologize for.
This is Kay's second bout with cancer. Even though she carried the clipboard again last night, she'll continue to receive regular chemotherapy treatments. By now, the family is well-versed in the risks, dangers and treatments of cancer. The sisters' mother, Elizabeth, died of stomach cancer. Kay was first diagnosed in 1987 and the disease returned in 2004. Debbie underwent a biopsy in 1990, but the tissue was benign.
Kay and Debbie last saw each other on New Year's Eve and talk on the phone whenever possible. In fact, they spoke just last Friday. Kay told Debbie that she was returning to work.
"I said, 'Are you sure?'" Debbie says. "She said, 'Yeah, I'm bored. My house is as clean as it's ever been. I miss it so much. I miss my players. I miss being out there.' She sounded so happy that there was no way I could really question the decision. This is what she needs."
So last night in Raleigh, N.C., Kay Yow was back on the bench, immersed again in the world of college athletics. She knows more than ever how important the university is to her.
And in Indianapolis, her younger sister Debbie was speaking in front of a group of young people, telling them all about the world of college athletics. And she learned this week how important she is to the university.