Debbie Yow's 16 years as University of Maryland athletic director included 20 national championships, a string of balanced budgets and a career's worth of friction with the school's two highest-profile coaches.
Yow's tenure had all the elements of a championship game. There were invigorating successes, trying periods and rivalries. Except the rivalries were often with her own team — men's basketball coach Gary Williams and football coach Ralph Friedgen — and their supporters.
It is part of her legacy that Yow, who is leaving Maryland to become North Carolina State's athletic director, rarely backed down from a challenge.
"She had many detractors," said state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, an ardent Terps fan and Maryland graduate. "And she doesn't suffer fools gladly."
"At the same time, she's going to be missed," said Miller, citing the championships and her "persistently dogged" attitude. "She's coming back to her home state. You respect this as a choice."
Yow's priorities were contained in her words and internal Maryland documents — and in her own contract.
She inherited a $51 million athletic department operating debt when she arrived at College Park in 1994. That debt has been reduced to about $6 million, and a department report late last year noted she "has balanced the department's annual budgets since 1994."
Yow's other priorities could sometimes be more controversial. Her Maryland contract includes bonuses of up to $30,000 for, among other things, athletes' graduation rates and Maryland's finishes in the Directors' Cup.
The Directors' Cup, formerly the Sears Cup, ranks schools according to finishes in a broad variety of intercollegiate sports. Some in the Maryland community, such as Steve Baldwin, a 1983 graduate and athletic donor, have said Maryland spread itself thin by appearing to support so many nonrevenue sports at the expense of men's basketball and football.
Maryland has 27 teams — 15 for women and 12 for men. The average number of teams at the ACC's eight public universities is 22. All of Maryland's teams except men's basketball and football operate at a deficit.
Yow has often denied slighting football and basketball.
Asked whether she was going to continue to focus on nonrevenue sports at N.C. State, she said in a teleconference Friday: "The focus first and foremost always has to be on the revenue sports. There's just no way around that. They fuel the success and the opportunity for success in the others because that's where the money is. But I do believe in broad-based excellence."
Maryland's 20 national championships under Yow represent more than half of the school's all-time total. At the same time, she has occasionally fought the perception that she slighted the two revenue sports. That perception was magnified because of her strained relationships with Williams and Friedgen.
"Friction is going to occur; that's just inevitable," said Tom McMillen, a member of the board of regents who starred in basketball at Maryland.
Friedgen and Williams both told friends that that Yow could be overbearing and controlling, and that they felt undermined by public comments from her or her assistants.
Asked about her legacy Friday, Williams said in a brief interview, "I have nothing to say specifically other than I'll let other people judge the 15 or 16 years Debbie Yow was at the University of Maryland."
Saying he was "indebted" to Yow for giving him his first head coaching job, Friedgen said: "I think it was unprecedented what she accomplished here. Obviously she did a very good job. I wish her well."
Women's basketball coach Brenda Frese, whom Yow hired away from the University of Minnesota, said in a statement Friday, "I've worked for various athletic directors at different schools and I can say with absolute certainty that Debbie Yow is the best."
Williams was already at Maryland when Yow arrived. Yow hired Friedgen, whose first three teams won 31 games but last season dipped to 2-10. Friedgen underwent a postseason review by Yow before she announced that he was keeping his job.
Before the last football season, Friedgen's assistant coaches hired an attorney because they believed they were contractually owed bonuses from the previous year. The university interpreted the contract language differently and the bonuses were not paid, leaving coaches angry.
Yow conceded her relationship with Friedgen had suffered last season because of the stress of budgetary issues and losing games but insisted that "the air was cleared" after the season.
Meanwhile, the men's basketball program had complained that assistant coaches were poorly paid relative to the rest of the ACC. The athletic department indicated in March that it was able to find additional compensation for the three assistants.
Owing largely to the economy, Yow — for the first time in her tenure in College Park — submitted a budget last year that was smaller than the previous year's. The action came as the university was struggling to sell new premium seating at Byrd Stadium.
"It's not easy being an AD in this climate," McMillen said. "If you look at the big picture, she's won national championships in many sports. She took a department deep in debt and was able to get it back into solvency. The fiscal discipline was her most important legacy."
Yow was hired by William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the University of Maryland system and the former school president. "I think she did a tremendous job as athletic director," Kirwan said. "She brought a real discipline to the program in terms of fiscal responsibility. But she also brought a real discipline in terms of high expectations within the program, both athletically and academically with relatively modest resources compared to other universities that we compete with."
Yow, who became the ACC's first female athletic director after coming from Saint Louis University, said Friday: "I do feel so good remembering where we were in 1994. It's so gratifying to know that the program is in better shape now than it was in '94. I say that with the full knowledge that there are many things that still need to be rectified and corrected."
Yow exits at a time of transition for the university. University president University president C.D. "Dan" Mote is retiring at the end of August. Mote has told the department he will name an interim replacement for Yow as soon as next week.
"To me this was inevitable," said Fabian Jiminez, a Maryland athletics backer from Potomac. "On the one hand, Ms. Yow was at the helm during arguably one of the most successful periods in Terrapin sports history. But on the other hand, how long can an athletic director succeed noting recent tensions with her two revenue sport coaches? N.C State presented an elegant exit for all parties involved."