When writing about Kay Yow’s death in January, I used a passage from the uplifting Robert Frost poem, “The Tuft of Flowers.” To paraphrase, it was about how people can work together even when apart.
But there is another Frost poem that comes to mind when trying to sort through feelings about how N.C. State and its women’s basketball program is proceeding after her death. It is a very different sort of poem – a doleful, brooding, tragic one called, “Home Burial.”
A mother is deeply grieving the death of her baby son while also furious with her husband, whose way to deal with his grief is to not acknowledge it. The woman is, in general, profoundly angry about the nature of grief, how the living are expected to pass through their sadness and continue on. In her state of mind, this is a betrayal of the dead.
“The nearest friends can go with anyone to death comes so far short they might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death, one is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave, but before one is in it, their minds are turned and making the best of their way back to life and living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so if I can change it. Oh, I won’t! I won’t!”
We are left to wonder if this mother eventually did move past her grief. Many, many people – in the overwhelming first stage of grief – feel as she did. Eventually, though, most do move through it. They don’t forget, of course, but they do continue with life.
There was every sense that that’s what Yow’s top assistant, Stephanie Glance, and the rest of the staff at N.C. State were prepared to do. The Wolfpack played the last two months of the season without Yow, and by next fall would have been even further advanced with dealing with the grief.
But N.C. State is not going to retain Glance. Kellie Harper, the former Tennessee standout, is expected to take the job today. And it presents a complicated dilemma for everyone involved and those of us on the outside trying to decide what to make of it.
Yow’s situation at N.C. State from late 2006 until her death was an extraordinary one. There may have been other situations like it in collegiate sports history, but I can’t think of another that lasted for so long and was of such a high profile.
This was not just a popular coach, but a universally beloved one. It would be impossible, honestly, to be any more universally beloved. A coach who spent her entire life in her native state, who built a program from the ground up, who was considered a pioneer, a trail-blazer and an icon. A coach who became a symbol for something much bigger than her sport: the battle against cancer.
This was a coach who stayed at her job for two and half seasons after she knew she had a terminal illness. Yow missed 16 games in the 2006-2007 season after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. The Wolfpack made the Sweet 16, and the truth is that many of us thought Yow was very close to the end then. And that she certainly wouldn’t be back as coach.
But she returned for the 2007-2008 season and then again for 2008-2009 before her health faded entirely. She officially stepped aside for the season in January, then died later in the month.
In a letter Yow sent to athletic director Lee Fowler and N.C. State chancellor James Oblinger in April of 2007, she essentially pleaded with both of them to give Glance the head coaching position. And there’s no other way to interpret this: Yow was ready to step aside in 2007, but didn’t because N.C. State made no move to elevate Glance.
In January, I spoke with Glance after she coached the Wolfpack’s first game following Yow’s death. She told me that no one in N.C. State’s administration was talking to her about the future. Right then and there, I felt pretty sure Fowler already had decided he was not going to retain her. And though it took another three months for N.C. State to make that official, that’s indeed what happened.
In the last week or so, once it became certain that Glance would not be given a chance to continue coaching the team, I kept trying to decide what to write about it. Like many people, I can see both sides of this.
On one hand is a loyal assistant who was put in an absolutely impossible position the past couple of years. Glance always deferred to Yow, even when it was Glance who really was completely in charge of things and making decisions. She deferred because it’s the only thing a decent, gracious and loyal person would do. Had Glance stepped forward very strongly with an “I’m in charge now” demeanor, it would have been unseemly.
By the same token, though, she never really got the chance to look or act like a true leader. She was always the second-in-command, ostensibly just keeping the ship steady until the captain could return. Even in those dire final weeks, when everyone close to Yow knew it really was the end, Glance had to keep up the appearance that it wasn’t. That she was still just filling in.
So Glance was in the proverbial Catch-22 situation. She truly could not act like she was the boss when Yow was alive. But that also meant she never got the opportunity to show she could be the boss. To suggest she had that chance in the last two months of this season, after Yow’s death, is preposterous.
Thus, many may feel that Glance was betrayed by N.C. State, and by extension, so was Yow. But this is very complicated.
Yow built the N.C. State women’s basketball program. It was considered “her” program. But as much as we think that way with coaches and programs – the Tennessee belongs to Pat Summitt, UConn belongs to Geno Auriemma, Stanford belongs to Tara VanDerveer, etc. – the reality is that coaches are stewards, not owners.
It’s not like a business they own where they would have the absolute power to dictate their successor when they left. That may sound cruel, especially when you’re talking about a coach who spent three decades at a school and all but died on the job.
But the fact is that business can be cruel. And women’s collegiate basketball is a business. It’s not in the realm of men’s basketball or football at many schools _ those institutions where there are big financial stakes involved in those two sports, and booster/alumni pressure to succeed is intense.
No, women’s basketball as a sport isn’t there yet … but it’s in a middle ground between that place and that of other sports at most schools. Sure, some other sports are relatively high-profile depending on the school or region of the country. But in general, on a nationwide basis, women’s hoops is No. 3 on the collegiate totem pole, separated from the two above it and all those below it.
Thus, decisions about women’s hoops teams can’t really allow for sentiment. This is what the people in this sport have wanted – to be taken that seriously – but it means things are sometimes going to be … cruel.
That said, plenty of folks will argue that Glance didn’t need “sentiment” to get her the job, that she had earned the chance by her performance. Others will say “sentiment” should at the very least have meant something. And still others feel that, sentiment or not, N.C. State should be a more successful program than it has been in the last few years and needed new “management.”
Fowler and N.C. State have decided that they have a better chance to win more games and make the program stronger with someone other than Glance.
So Harper will leave her job at Western Carolina and move across the state. In an ESPN.com column after the official announcement, I will write more about Harper and the challenges she faces. Suffice to say, it seems likely she will deal with backlash from some N.C. State alums and fans who feel Glance deserved at least a couple of years to show what she could do with the job if it was actually hers.
Glance isn’t going to get that opportunity, and it’s hard to not feel a sense of discomfort, at the very least, at how this has played out. Much is still up in the air as to what the environment will be at N.C. State. Will Glance take on a different role at the university? Will she continue as Yow’s right-hand person (even after Yow’s death) by overseeing the continuing fund-raising efforts for cancer research and prevention? Will she somehow welcome Harper and help the transition?
Yow was known for an abundance of grace in every situation, and maybe we will find out now that Glance has just as much. Because I’m not sure how many people in the world could gracefully handle what I think Glance is going through.
And it probably will be difficult – at least initially – for a lot of the N.C. State alums not to dislike Harper for taking this job. Some may even cut off all association with N.C. State.
But despite all the pain and hurt feelings, is this the correct move? Did N.C. State have to do this in order to truly move past Yow’s death?
This is a really, really hard question to even face, let alone answer. Frankly, it’s the thing that was making it most difficult for me to write about this situation. Yow’s battle against cancer was inspiring to so many people, and it ultimately turned into as much a part of her legacy as her coaching was. But her fight became so much the focus that basketball and the N.C. State players themselves became secondary.
This isn’t anyone’s fault, and it was exactly what Yow never wanted to happen. But a sense of sadness and impending loss enveloped the team this season. And when that loss became final, grief enveloped the program.
And so we return to Frost’s poem about the grieving mother who’s angry about the necessity of “getting over” a death.
Did N.C. State need to change its coaching staff to move beyond the lingering melancholy? Or should the school have allowed the staff members that served under Yow a real chance to show what new direction and personality the program could have as they moved beyond the passing of their mentor?
This was a very hard spot for an athletic director to be in. There was no easy answer for Fowler, and any decision he made would have resulted in at least some criticism.
In the end, it’s as stark as this: N.C. State chose not to honor Kay Yow’s wish that Glance would be her successor. The school had the right to do that, of course.
But whether having the right and actually being right are the same thing … in this case, that remains to be seen.