Debbie Yow reflects on her career at NC State
After nine years as the N.C. State athletic director, and the past 25 in the ACC, Debbie Yow is retiring.
Her last day at the office is Friday. Boo Corrigan will take over on Tuesday. Yow, 68, sat down with Joe Giglio of the News & Observer on Thursday for an interview about the challenges and successes of her tenure.
Many topics, from the FBI investigation and the school’s relationship with Adidas, to the school’s success in the Directors’ Cup and “N.C. State stuff” were covered in a 30-minute interview at Yow’s office on campus.
Q: You’re retiring, after a long administrative career. I’m interested in what you would consider your main success, not only here, but if you could look back on your whole career. Is there one thing that jumps out at you?
Yow: “Two things that jump out. No. 1 is the number of people that I’ve worked with that who have become athletic directors. I’ve played a part in their lives that they say mattered to them, so I’m always happy to see them succeed. And advance their careers.
“The other is, of course, championships and winning. In both cases, the Power 5 schools I’ve been AD at both Maryland and N.C. State, challenging times turned into better times. It’s always a joy to watch fans happy about success. Those are two things that I think will always be gratifying.”
Q: On the day you were hired in 2010, your goal was for across-the-board success and to turn N.C. State into a top-25 program in the Directors’ Cup. You were No. 89 in the Directors’ Cup standings when you got here, No. 15 last year and you’re No. 11 in the current standings. What do you think was the No. 1 thing that you did to help achieve a goal that you were pretty open about?
Yow: “The reason I listed that as the goal on that day was because of the cultural shift that would have to occur, in terms of attitude. We don’t talk about it, but I hear people talk about ‘N.C. State stuff’ and that’s a reflection of an attitude about the place and about our limitations.
“From my perspective, I felt like we had to change the culture and you can’t change the culture for a place with 23 teams, unless you start celebrating every success — no matter which team is succeeding.
“You have to build on that, ensure that the lion's share of money still goes to football and men’s basketball — because that’s where our revenue is generated, so that has to be that way — but pay attention to the Olympic sports at the same time and watch the shift begin to occur, which has happened.
“They’re pretty interesting as a group, at head coaches’ meetings, when you sit around the table and you know on one side, there will be somebody (who) finished No. 4 in the nation like (swimming coach) Braden (Holloway), somebody might have that might have finished No. 9 and they’re bantering.
“It’s all very healthy and it feeds off of itself and they celebrate each others’ success. There’s no jealousy. That’s another key. You can’t have just two sports that are the ‘haves’ and 21 that are the ‘have nots’ because it breeds a horribly unhealthy environment of jealousy and envy.
“And, again, they’re Olympic sports, it doesn’t take much money to make a difference there. So I would say the No. 1 thing is changing the culture.”
Q: You mentioned the success of the non-revenue sports, how do you feel about where you are in football and basketball?
Let’s start with basketball. (Wednesday) there was news from a federal trial in New York about coach Kevin Keatts being mentioned on a list as a possible target of wannabe agent Christian Dawkins and his wide-ranging scheme to pay high-school recruits. What was your reaction to seeing that?
Yow: “I don’t have a reaction to someone having a list of coaches that they targeted to get to know. I don’t know what to say about that. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to be concerned.”
Q: In your diligence, when the FBI subpoenaed the phone records and other information for (former basketball coach) Mark Gottfried and (former assistant basketball coach) Orlando Early (in 2018), did you do any of your own background work for any possible connection by Kevin, or any of your current assistants, to Dawkins?
Yow: “Carrie Doyle is the head of compliance and she reports to the chancellor’s office and she is constantly checking on records of all kinds, so that might be a better question for her.”
Q: When you hired Kevin, you used a search firm. Was there anything in their background check that suggested to you that he had any problems, specifically at Louisville?
Yow: “No. No issues. According to the search firm, no.”
Q: Was there anything you did additionally to the search firm background check?
Yow: “We had direct conversations with Kevin, of course.”
Q: First year, he makes the NCAA tournament. This year, did not make the NCAA tournament ...
Yow: “Deserved to make it this year …”
Q: ... You were not happy about the exclusion.
Yow: “It’s not so much whether or not that I’m happy. Everybody would have a visceral response to that I think. Factually, we deserved to get in. If you use the NET, KenPom, Sagarin or the BPI, all of them had us in.
“Whether you compare us to Syracuse — we were both 3-9 in Quads 1 and 2 and we beat Syracuse head-to-head — there were a number of ways to use the facts that (the NCAA) said they were going to use to suggest we belonged.
“St. John’s was 40 spots below us in the NET ranking. (The NCAA) said, in their release in August, that the NET was going to be their primary sorting tool for evaluating teams to get into the tournament.”
Q: You leave here tomorrow, do you feel good about the direction of the basketball program under Kevin?
Yow: “I do. Day-to-day working with coach Keatts is better than I thought it would be. He has a tremendous work ethic, which I always appreciate. He has great relationships with his student-athletes. We do anonymous surveys of student-athletes in every sport, after the completion of every season. He and his staff get some of the highest ratings. That’s always a good sign.”
Q: When you made the decision to fire Mark (Gottfried in 2017), you mentioned the direction of the program and the instability of the roster. The first two years under Kevin there hasn’t been much difference. Is that just the way college basketball is now or are you concerned that Kevin is not bringing in more of his own guys from the start and trying to develop them?
Yow: “That’s going to come. It is because it’s Year 2. It will come over time. We’re still in the process of finding ‘bridge’ players. Having been a coach, at three different programs, I understand what is to try to really get going and get that momentum going.”
Q: With everything you’ve gone through with the FBI investigation, do you regret hiring Mark?
Yow: “I regret the situation we find ourselves in and I don’t know that Mark has anything to do with it. Neither does anyone else. No one even knows if Orlando has done anything.
“I just regret, in general, that we’re going through something and we don’t know what the ‘something’ is and if there is a ‘something.’”
Q: With the football program, you made a decision fairly early in your tenure to replace Tom O’Brien. How do you feel like the program has changed since then? Obviously, it’s a big day for the NFL draft and coach Dave (Doeren) has won 18 games the past two years. How do you feel like that decision has paid off for you?
Yow: “We made the change after three full seasons here. From an AD perspective, that’s very patient. I think that (Tom) had earned that right, to be candid with you, to see where we were headed.
“In a macro sense, having won the most ACC games — outside of Clemson for the last two years — is a big statement for coach Doeren.
“I think this is a big year for us with the change in quarterback and four new coaches but coach Doeren seems very happy with the staff he has brought on board. That’s what you want — new energy, new ideas — that’s always a good thing.”
Q: When you say, ‘big’ you mean important? I get the sense this will be a rebuilding year. You’re about to have six guys drafted and had seven the year before.
Yow: “It is a rebuilding year, our quarterback is gone. But it’s ‘big’ in the sense ... the concept might be a little difficult to explain. Let’s just say in earlier years we would consider a bad year to be 5-7.”
Q: Or 3-9 was Dave’s first year. That’s a bad year.
Yow: “That’s a bad year. As you change and as the program moves along, the concept of a ‘bad year’ changes the longer a coach is at a program. The expectations are higher, whether you’re changing a quarterback or not, this is just the reality of the way things are.
“You kind of do it to yourself by being successful. The expectations will have risen. No one is expecting us to go 3-9, even with a change in quarterback. His recruiting is off the charts. You know I believe that that is where it all starts. It’s not the end-all, but it’s the beginning. You have to have a critical mass of talent to be able to then mold from an X-and-O perspective.”
Q: Funny you bring up recruiting. One of your more memorable quotes, when you fired Tom, was you were going to hire a coach with "Alabama-type" recruiting.
Yow: “I could have said 'Notre Dame-type recruiting' or any other program that is highly successful.”
Q: But the recent NFL draft success suggests that Dave has lived up to part of that.
Yow: “I’ve never seen anybody more effective, as related to the resources available to them, to quote-unquote 'sell to' recruits. And his work ethic is impeccable.”
Q: You’ve developed a superstar persona on social media, on Twitter specifically. How do you think that’s helped you? You have a fire-at-will type of personality on Twitter.
Yow: “I spend my time talking to our fans. Sometimes fans of other schools come over to read what our fans and I are talking about and perhaps take things out of context.”
Q: Do you enjoy the give-and-take on Twitter? You are popular with N.C. State fans and it feels like Twitter is a big part of that.
Yow: “I do believe I understand our fans and appreciate the tough times they’ve been through, which is why it always pleases me when we can do better.”
Q: There have been exterior challenges here that you’ve had to deal with, specifically in sending disassociation letters to Eric Leak, a former football player here, and Andy Miller, an agent. What are some of things you learned in trying take on those challenges?
Yow: “I’ve learned that you better have the best head of the compliance unit you can find. That’s why we hired Carrie Doyle, who worked as a major infractions office for the NCAA for 12 years.
“I’ve learned that I should never second-guess the conservative nature I have for these things. When you issue a disassociation letter, it feels like a big deal. At least for me, the question at the time was, ‘Is this extreme?’ I’m going to do it anyway but I wonder if I’m overreacting. What I learned was to trust my instincts.
“When we issued those, we didn’t have all the information that people might have today. So I’m really glad we took the conservative approach and went ahead and made the choices that we made that were formal and official and in writing.”
Q: When Leak’s name came back up during the (Jim) Gatto trial in connection to Dennis Smith, was there a part of you that thought, ‘What else can I do to keep this guy away from our players?’
Yow: “His name comes up with athletes, not just at N.C. State, but at other schools. I don’t think anybody would really have the answer.
“If you, or I, just decide that we’re going to go do something we’re not supposed to do, I don’t know that anyone can stop us from doing it. Although we would likely pay a price for it later.”
Q: When you hear (Chancellor) Randy Woodson praise you for being thorough and diligent in handling the FBI issues. Is that what he’s talking about?
Yow: “We’ve worked together nine years. He knows that I’m very conservative. So is Carrie. We are a great fit together. We spend most of our time with our staff and the coaches talking about our mantra, which is ‘ERA.’
“Establish the culture. Reinforce the culture. Act with integrity when the culture is threatened.
“You can walk down this hallway and any of them can tell you what ‘ERA’ is because it’s continuous. We were looking at documents over the last nine years where we’ve shared that and it’s going to be over 200,000 communications to people about our culture: who we are, what we want and what we expect.
“That’s rare. As an AD, it’s just a challenge to focus on this. There are so many things going on day-to-day. I’ve made it a priority, not knowing that there would be a question raised about anything here but I’m glad that I did.”
Q: One question about Adidas. You guys were in federal court and found to have been defrauded by Gatto (a former Adidas executive) but you have a multimillion-dollar contract with Adidas. Their logo is all over your stadium, arena and your media guides and everything else. Is there any part of you that feels uncomfortable that you’re in court with this company but still financially supported by them?
Yow: “Perhaps I would feel that way if we had the understanding that Nike and Under Armour were pure. Absent that, those are the three choices. So, I don’t know how you can just pick one out and say, ‘No, we don’t want to be with them.’”
Q: You’re not just retiring from N.C. State, you have been an AD in the ACC for the past 25 years. You spent 16 years at Maryland. What was your reaction when Maryland left the ACC in 2014?
Yow: “They’re a founding member of the ACC. Sedgefield Country Club, spring of 1953. I think no matter what school it would have been that left us, that was a founding member, I would have felt sad about that.”
Q: Do you think any of your financial decisions at Maryland led to their decision to leave the ACC for the Big Ten?
Yow: “You know, the best source for you is a woman named Julie Phelps, who was the chief financial officer for Maryland — not for athletics, for the university. She said none of their issues were related to when I was there.
“Their issues related to firing Ralph Friedgen and his entire staff in 2010, when he was the ACC coach of the year, followed by a number of other choices.
“She’s really the definitive source, not me, because she’s tough and was the person of charge of finance. I would turn to what she says.”
Q: I don’t know if you’ll sit down with (new N.C. State AD) Boo (Corrigan) before he gets here ...
Yow: “There’s no plan to ...”
Q: ... If he was sitting here right now, and asked you, ‘Hey, what should we do about pass-outs at halftime at Carter-Finley Stadium?’ What would you tell him?
Yow: “I would say you have a whole number of people on campus who would be glad to talk to you about that, both pro and con. You need to talk with our football coach. You need to talk with the people who deal with security on campus.”
Q: Your last day is Friday. What do you want to do next?
Yow: “I don’t know. The next great adventure. There are options. I’m writing down the options as people come to me and make suggestions. I’m keeping a list and not making any commitments right now.
“The only thing I care about right now is being sure that everything we can sew up, clarify and get prepared for Boo is there.”
Q: But you’ll keep your Twitter account?
Yow: “I think so. I don’t know that I’ll be as active, at least for awhile, but Twitter is fun unless you get very nasty. I’m always kind of surprised when people get truly nasty, name-calling. And why? It shouldn’t be that way.
“You can have banter. That’s fun. I’ll probably still keep it.”