Ken Martin/The Wolfpacker
At the end of her eighth year as NC State’s director of athletics, Debbie Yow continues to retool the department in pursuit of making Wolfpack athletics one of the top 25 in the annual Directors’ Cup standings.
To that effect, Yow hired five new coaches during the year to join a talented roster that was awarded five ACC Coach of the Year honors in 2016-17, tied with Virginia Tech for the most in the league. The honored coaches were Braden Holloway in men’s and women’s swimming, Laurie Henes in women’s cross country, Wes Moore in women’s basketball and the recently retired Richard Sykes in men’s golf.
NC State won three ACC championships (women’s cross country, men’s and women’s swimming & diving), second most in the ACC among sports that are sponsored by the university.
Overall, 16 teams reached postseason competition, and nine were ranked in the final top 25 of their respective sports.
Off the field, NCSU reopened historic Reynolds Coliseum after a $35-million renovation. The facility hosted the ACC wrestling and East Atlantic Gymnastics League championships.
The student-athletes also matched its highest Graduation Success Rate in school history (83 percent).
Yow sat down with The Wolfpacker in mid-June, and here are highlights from that interview:
How do did the year go athletically for NC State?
“I happen to be a person who wants to first look at what went wrong. Once I feel like we have remedies in place, then I’m willing to mentally move on to what went well. That’s how I have to approach things; so let’s start with ‘teams.’
“I feel like we have done well in regards to our hires this year. Leading that group is Kevin Keatts. There has not been a day since he joined NC State that he hasn’t been everything that I hoped he would be and more.
“What he is going to need is a little bit of time. I don’t think a lot of time, but I do understand the situation he inherited. And he is in the midst of installing a culture of accountability on every front.
“There is a great quote by [management consultant] Peter Drucker about the value of culture that says, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast … every day.’
“I believe that. If the right culture is not in place, all the good plans will never be successful because people give up when they hit rough spots.
“We’re partnering well together, and he’s already making progress on every front, including academically with our student-athletes. His conversation with Omer [Yurtseven] the day before Omer announced he was coming back to State was pivotal in that decision. Omer said that himself.
“Kevin has completed his staff now. It took him a while to select his third assistant, but that has been done. I feel like he did well on those hires.
“In women’s volleyball, Linda Hampton-Keith has been with us one year and is an amazing leader. Now we have [former basketball player] Thurl Bailey’s daughter playing this fall. It is going to be a special season.
“Our hire in men’s soccer is George Kiefer. What was interesting about hiring George was learning in the interview process about his background personally and also his love for NC State.
“He watched us as a child when we were really, really good. When you’re at an impressionable age, those things stick with you and have a tendency to make you a fan forever.
“That drew him back to us, and he now has the 10th-best recruiting class in the nation, even though he has only been here a matter of months.
“In men’s golf, we hired Press McPhaul, one of our own, who has been in less-than-desirable situations, but done well. We are able to provide more for him and the golf program than any program he’s ever worked for so far. We feel terrific about that hire.
“I saw one of our men’s golfer on campus recently, and he came over to tell me how pleased he was with our hiring Press. I said, ‘Why, just from reputation?’ He said, ‘No, I almost went to East Carolina over NC State because of him. It’s ironic to me that it’s now come full circle, and he’s with us.’
“That made me feel really good. Providing our athletes with the best possible coaches is one of our most important goals, and Coach Sykes has been really supportive.
“In men’s tennis, we hired an Olympian in Kyle Spencer. It’s the second time I have hired him. In a couple of short years at Maryland he turned the program upside down that had been at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference, largely because there were no scholarships until later in my tenure there.
“In his last match in 2011 or ‘12, before they dropped the sport, he beat UNC, a top-20 program, for the first time ever. He’s a winner. Period.
“In women’s gymnastics, we hired Kim Landrus. She has been in the top 11 in women’s gymnastics in three of the last six years at Illinois and expressed interest in our job.
“We focused on her and just looked at each other and said, ‘Can we actually get her to join us and have her family move to the East Coast?’ It worked out.
“She’s a triplet, and they were all gymnasts at Iowa State. She was an All-American and an academic All-American.
“I feel good about hiring a qualified female. At NC State, we hire the best candidates, and often times they have been men who coached the women. It was terrific to be able to hire her as a head coach for us.”
How demanding was it to have five coaching hires in a year?
“It’s challenging in terms of timing demands if you are going to do it right.
“In our system, there are seven of us involved in sport supervision. I have other senior staff members here overseeing the searches, chairing the searches, who did terrific work for each search. We take great pride in making the best possible hires for NC State, no matter the sport.
“If you pick out two elements in collegiate athletics that will lead to success, the first one is the people you hire, always and without exception. A bad hire will cost you time, money and emotional investment.
“The second element is having the financial resources to be in a position to be relevant among peer schools, which we have reached.
“Our budget is ranked 50th out of the 65 Power Five conference schools. I’d like it to be better than that and I think in 2019-20 [when ESPN launches the ACC Network] we have a chance to do better for ourselves.
“We’re generally outperforming across the board, comparing budgetary status to the Directors’ Cup outcomes.
“I care about all of our sports. If you are wearing the words NC State or Wolfpack across that jersey, then we want to be successful.”
What has stood out most to you since you hired Keatts?
“His strategic thinking. He thinks through a problem and how to resolve it in a creative and logical way. I appreciate that and gravitate to people who think that way.”
What are your thoughts about the football program?
“Some of the bright spots for us currently are our preseason ranking in football, in the national Top 25 by some polls, and recruiting for the 2018 season.
“We took a dip in 2017 recruiting in terms of the rankings, although I think it is a group of fine young men who will prove the experts wrong. That was challenging, but we’re back.
“Dave [Doeren] is a terrific recruiter, as are most of the men on his staff. I feel very good about football for that and other reasons. As always, I appreciate their attention to academics and their unrelenting work ethic.
“We continue to have the most unbalanced system of competition in the ACC. This will be my eighth year at State, and every year since we’ve split into divisions someone in the ACC will say to me, ‘Well, the power is going to shift.’ Yet, in 2017 the Atlantic Division has four teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 poll and the Coastal has one.
“That’s typical of the way this has gone. When someone in the ACC says it’s going to shift, I’d like to know when that is going to happen. What’s going to make that shift happen because Clemson is Clemson, FSU is FSU and Louisville is Louisville, and we are doing our best to catch them.
“Any system that has NC State playing Duke twice in 12 years is significantly flawed. We don’t have to have divisions anymore. We could have a simple rotation with one permanent partner, for us that would be UNC, and it would be fair.
“Then our student-athletes would know Duke is in the ACC because they would actually play them. Right now, our athletes come and go and never compete against Duke, 30 miles away.”
You could argue the only shift in the ACC that has occurred is by adding Louisville, creating even more of an imbalance with the Atlantic Division.
“Louisville should have been added to the Coastal, and that didn’t happen either. For some people it was as simple as saying Maryland was in the Atlantic, Maryland’s gone, so plug Louisville in there. That, of course, is not wise if you are interested in equitable competition.
“We continue to have an extraordinary mountain to climb every year playing Clemson, FSU and Louisville, and then add this year Notre Dame and South Carolina out of conference.”
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