NCHSAA head Que Tucker on making history, Kay Yow, women’s sports

Eight years ago, when Que Tucker made history and became the first female and first Black commissioner of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, she found herself with a lot of thank you letters to write — plus a lot of follow-ups for congratulatory notes she had received.

She made sure to sign every one. And to this day, she signs everything she sends out. No stamp.

It’s a lesson she learned from the late great Kay Yow, the former N.C. State women’s basketball coach. When Tucker was coaching high school in the ‘80s, she often worked at Yow’s camps in Raleigh. Tucker became an assistant coach for the Wolfpack in 1989, and said Yow taught her so many things that stay with her to this day.

“I went to N.C. State shortly after coach Yow had (coached USA Basketball at the 1988) Seoul Olympic games, and it was neat to be there at that time,” Tucker said. “Not only because of the players we had but because of all the wrap-up she was involved in, thanking people for what they had done for her and praying for her while she was over there. There were all these cards and letters. Coach Yow was different than a lot of people. She would sign all her letters. I get that from her. I remember somebody would send a note congratulating her on the Olympics and she wanted to send them a note thanking that person for sending a congratulations note.”

On National Girls and Women In Sports Day, Tucker said it’s important for young girls, in particular, to see women in the role that Yow had and the one she has now. Tucker said that “keeps the revolving door going,” making those young people believe there are real opportunities for women in a sports world still dominated by men.

And the biggest lesson that Yow taught Tucker — both in observation and advice — was that you succeeded by taking care of and remembering those that helped you climb.

“I learned that relationships are key,” Tucker said. “It’s not all about what you know, but it’s about who you know and how you treat those people you know. (Yow) knew all of her players’ parents when they graduated. She knew when they went off and got married and had children. She kept up with them like that. That’s why it was a family. I always remembered that.

“It’s about how you make people feel.”

Today, the 70-year-old Tucker is outgoing, blunt and quick with a laugh. She’s directed athletics for the state’s 432 public schools since 2015, and while she said she’s not sure how much longer she’ll go, she has successfully navigated some of the NCHSAA’s all-time biggest crises, including the N.C. legislature nearly replacing the association, severe hurricane damage and COVID shutting down high school sports for months.

Tucker spoke with The Observer at length in her window-laden office about a variety of topics, including the future of girls’ sports in the state. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you come to know Kay Yow?

“When I played at Mars Hill, one of the officials of our games was a student at Western Carolina named Nora Lynn Finch (who later became the ACC’s first female assistant AD and negotiated the first women’s basketball tournament contract with CBS). She ended up at N.C. State (and later as a senior associate commissioner with the ACC as well as a women’s basketball Hall of Famer). So it was just the fact that she knew me and got my intro with coach Yow.”

What was your career at N.C. State (1989-91) like?

“We had players like Rhonda Mapp and (former North Mecklenburg All-American) Andrea Stinson. My first year there, we did a scrimmage at North Meck, so we could come home with Andrea. I won’t forget it. The gym was just packed. It was exhibition game and we had such a great experience. I was able to go to Taiwan. We (coached Team USA) in the William Jones Cup over there and one of the people on the team was Katie Meier, who played at Duke and is now coaching at the University of Miami. My first time going to Hawaii was our Thanksgiving trip over there (with the Wolfpack).”

If it was so much fun, why leave Raleigh so fast?

“I thought that the difference-making occurred when you were working with high school students, and you could help shape and mold character and really have more of an influence. I loved the young women at NC State, but when they got to college they’re all set (in their ways). When I got to State, I had no idea I’d only be there for two years but I kind of realized that, ‘This is going to be a big-time business,’ and I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. No Christmas with your family. All summer long, you’re sitting in gyms, running around the country recruiting. I was like, ‘I love my momma and daddy too much for this.’ ”

How did you end up at the NCHSAA in 1991?

“(Former NCHSAA commissioner) Charlie Adams knew me because I had coached at the high school level. He called and said, ‘We’ve got a position over here. I think you might be good for this.’ It was to be an assistant executive director in charge of a new student services program. He said, ‘I want you to create it and we’re going to do some things that maybe no other state is doing.’ It intrigued me.”

I would imagine, in the early 1990s, you might have faced some pushback from an association dominated by male coaches.

“I always felt like I had to study more. I had to make sure I knew what I was talking about and just try to not mess up. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to offend anybody. My mom and dad had prepared me. My mom was a teacher and she talked about the importance of conjugating verbs and being able to stand on your feet and talk. My dad owned his own shoe repair business, and he said you need to be able to get into any setting, all white or all Black, and be able to navigate that.”

What was your toughest setting early on?

“I really didn’t have a lot of pushback, but when I first came to the association, I moved into the deputy role. I was also supervising officials. So it was like, ‘They’ve got a woman sitting in that chair and she’s going to be trying to us football coaches what?’ And so I was in a couple of settings and somebody would ask some challenging questions and I was able to answer because I was studying and I knew. After it was over, Charlie (Adams) said, ‘You did a great job and you answered that exactly the way you were supposed to.’ ”

Charlie Adams retired in 2010 and his successor, Davis Whitfield, left in the summer of 2015. Did you want the head job then?

“I never did. I didn’t come here for that reason. Davis announced he was taking a position at the (National) Federation (of High Schools) and the president of the board of directors asked me to consider the commissioner job. I said, ‘I’m getting close to the end.’ I had taught 12 years, then I came here in 1991. I had my 30 years for retirement. Then they asked if I would do it on an interim basis. I agreed. In December, Mo Green, who was NCHSAA president, said ‘I need to know what you’re going to do: move back to the deputy position or are you interested in staying?’

“I talked to my mom and dad about it. My dad said, ‘It’s a whole lot more responsibility,’ but they said they would support me. I prayed about it and I thought I ought to give it a shot. Charlie took a chance on me … and he encouraged me to take it, too.”

When you started, you were one of two Black female high school sports association heads nationwide — and the first in NC. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer?

“I think I am, but I don’t dwell on it. And it doesn’t mean maybe what somebody might think that I think it means. I realize for women sitting in this chair, it was a rarity in 2015. I owe it to young girls who look like me to know that there’s an opportunity for you in sports, if you want it.”

What does National Girls and Women and Sports Day mean to you?

“Women have come a long way. When I was in high school, we had one organized competitive team — basketball. Look at all the sports available now for women to participate. It’s a time we can pause and remember how far we’ve come, and also causes us to think about the fact that there’s still a ways to go.

“I’d love to see another woman sitting in this chair. Hopefully when I leave somebody will be able to say, ‘Que proved that a female who is prepared and knowledgeable and has the skills and tools can do it,’ and that there will be someone else ready to be given that opportunity.”

How have you navigated some of the big items under your watch: COVID, hurricane damage, even a fight some NC lawmakers to retain the NCHSAA as the governing body for high school sports?

“The hardest part, especially as we were dealing with hurricanes and COVID, was trying to find a way to get through it. Hurricanes were impacting lives and damaging facilities, and how do we get those schedules played and all that? You want to help young people get back to a normal way of life. COVID brought everything to a screeching halt, and became a challenge for me. How do we overcome those hurdles and get our young people back to playing sports? I believe in sports, those core values of sportsmanship and integrity and honest and teamwork. I thought if our young people are losing those opportunities, whether it’s because of a hurricane or COVID, then they are going to be in trouble as their continue their growth and move out into the worth. So the challenge was there for me to do that.”

Last March, the NC Board of Education and the NCHSAA approved a “memorandum of understanding” that kept the NCHSAA in control of high school athletics. The HB 91 bill, pushed by several state legislators, could’ve ended the association altogether. How would you describe that process?

“It was tough, but this is what I always thought: I haven’t done anything wrong. (Some lawmakers) tried to say we didn’t have any oversight. We have a board of directors, we have direct oversight from the schools themselves. We couldn’t pass a rule; we couldn’t just willy-nilly anything without board approval or the membership saying to the board, ‘This is what we want to do.’ So it was frustrating. I can say that because every time I said anything to the politicians, it was almost like it was falling on deaf ears for some. I felt like they didn’t believe what we were saying about the association.

“We bridged the gap because we had some friends in the general assembly and fortunately our legislative liaisons were able to build some coalition of those people. And then our board came to a point where we realized a bill was going to be passed. If we dig our heels in and push back on a bill being passed, we’re going to lose in the end. So let’s see if we can come up with language we can live with that will be in the bill that gives us an opportunity to move forward as an association. We think we got that.”

One of the big issues that surfaced during all of that was the association’s nearly $41 million endowment. What is it that people don’t get right about it?

“People thought that’s how much money we had on hand, that we can actually go and touch. That’s not true. Included in the total net assets are this building, some vehicles. The board has asked us to have at least one year operating expenses ($5 million) in reserve and ideally two. So that’s $15 million. But the other 27 million has two buckets of money: dollars that are untouchable with the exception of using interest earning, and then you have dollars that the board has said we’re going to have (to help schools with hurricane or COVID funding).

The dollars we can’t touch are probably $20 million. The only part we can touch of that is interest and that money has been designated by the people who gave it to things like the Charlie Adams Scholarship. The public thinks we’re supposed to build tracks. When I went to Raleigh, in front of the legislators, they told me schools needed uniforms, that schools were burning oil in the winter time so the pipes don’t burst. There’s this idea that those dollars (could go to that).”

Does the association have a messaging problem around the endowment?

“We did a terrible job of helping membership understand how the endowment would work, and if they are patient how it could work. Fortunately, we had some board members who were good superintendents in terms of being able to look ahead and think (about long term growth). Had that not been case, we wouldn’t have been able to give the COVID assistance we provided (the NCHSAA allocated $4 million from the endowment to school). We shared with schools that didn’t have sports programs that year. They didn’t even play and they got a check.”

With the legal fight behind you, what are the big issues ahead?

“It’s more of the bad behavior, the lack of officials, the mental health issues. We’re looking at officials and what we can do. We know they want more money, but we also believe (fan) behavior has to change. It’s always in the back of your mind, you’ll get a call from somebody saying, ‘There’s no officials available and we can’t play that game. What are we gonna do?’ As you talk to people about becoming an official, they say I’m not going to take this kind of abuse. It could get worse before it gets better, but I try to remain optimistic.”

Langston Wertz Jr. is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked at the Observer since 1988. He’s covered everything from Final Fours and NFL to video games and Britney Spears. Wertz — a West Charlotte High and UNC grad — is the rare person who can answer “Charlotte,” when you ask, “What city are you from.”
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