I’ll tell you a story about a leader. You never know when one will impact your life. When I was in high school the coaches were men, and the opportunity wasn’t there, so I never really thought about coaching.
I saw myself being a teacher. When I got out of college, I applied for a job at Allen Jay High School in High Point. The principal, Mr. A. Doyle Early, knew me when I was a player at Gibsonville. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools was starting to accredit high schools, and they wanted a woman associated with their women’s basketball team. A guy had coached both the girls and boys for 13 years there. And I was applying to teach senior English. Mr. Early wanted me to coach the girls. I thought, “No way.”
Basically, Mr. Early talked me into doing it.
Now, Mr. Early was a leader, a man who kept me crossing my t’s, dotting my i’s. I had to be on top of things because he had high expectations.
During my first year there, we won the regular season. It wasn’t because of my coaching; it was because of some great players that were on that team.
We ended up playing in the tournament championship, and the game went right down to the wire. We had a one-point lead, but the team we were playing — with about 12 seconds left — hit a shot that put them one point up.
My players just took the ball out of bounds, passed it up the right side; another player ran up the left and across to the free throw line on the other end. We made two passes and hit this player — that was my best player — and she just went up in the air and shot. As she shot, time ran out. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced straight up for what seemed like an eternity. When it came down, it swished through the net. We had won the championship.
My players had towels in their hands, and they just threw the towels in the air. It was a great celebration, and everybody was coming over, shaking my hand, saying congratulations.
I was floating in the sky. I was in the clouds.
This went on for about thirty minutes. Then I saw Mr. Early walking toward me. He was a man of few compliments. I thought, “Wow! He’s coming up like everybody else to shake my hand and tell me ‘Great job.’ ”
As he got closer, I noticed the expression on his face wasn’t like everybody else’s. I had my hand out, but I put it down. I was 22, enjoying this moment tremendously, probably thinking more highly of myself than I ought to.
He came over and said, “Coach Yow, you brought 12 towels over here, and I want you to take 12 towels back.”
My feet just went bam. I came down out of the clouds. When he said something, he expected it to happen. And then he said, “You brought 12 towels. You need to count and make sure you have 12 towels to go back. Count the towels.” Then he just left.
Now stragglers were coming over to congratulate me, and I had to just say, “Well, thanks, but I’ve got something I have got to take care of.” I had to start looking for those towels because I knew I either had to get them or buy more, because he would come by my homeroom on Monday to see if they were there.
Mr. Early gave me a great lesson in perspective and leadership, one I’ll never forget.
Leaders help others keep things in perspective.
“OK, so you won. But you have responsibilities, and you are accountable for things, and you will have to be sure that those things are taken care of. You can’t lose focus and lose track. It is a great win, but that is not the only thing happening out here.”
Even when I won the gold medal in the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, as the clock was ticking down in that final game, a marquee was going around in my head that just said, “Count the towels.”
I think that most leaders have had a Mr. Early in their lives, someone who reminded them to keep things in perspective and no matter how big the wins or the losses, the successes or failures, to always remember to count those towels.
Kay Yow, a Gibsonville native, died Jan. 24 at age 66 after a 20-year battle with cancer. She was women’s head basketball coach at N.C. State University; winner as a U.S. women’s Olympic coach of two gold medals. Yow also was a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.