Just how long has Debbie Ryan coached UVA women’s basketball team? Thirty-four years. When Ryan started fresh out of Ursinus College as an assistant coach for UVA in 1975, the program was two years old—UVA had only started admitting first-year women in 1970. When Ryan became head coach in 1977, the ACC regular season involved only six games. The NCAA didn’t even organize a women’s basketball tournament until 1982.
She’s worked for five athletic directors and three university presidents and, as she said at her farewell press conference, she’s “had to train every single one of them.”
“It’s been the best years of my life,” said Ryan.
The Cavaliers failed to make the NCAA tournament this season, but received a Women’s National Invitational Tournament bid after Ryan announced her resignation. That gave her the chance to coach at least one more game for the home crowd on March 17, a 69-56 win against Morgan State. On Sunday, UVA travels to play Loyola Maryland.
When coaches step down, particularly those with long careers at one place, the usual banter is about wins and losses, and without question Ryan accumulated remarkable numbers—736 wins out of 1,059 games, 11 ACC regular season titles, 24 NCAA tournament berths, three Final Four appearances. She was named national coach of the year in 1991, when the Cavaliers came up three points short in overtime against Tennessee for the national title. In 2008, Ryan was inducted into the women’s basketball Hall of Fame.
The numbers have become somewhat less remarkable over the last decade, as other programs have caught up with UVA. The Cavaliers haven’t won an ACC regular season title since 2000, and failed to make the NCAA tournament four of the last eight years. Ryan wouldn’t discuss the details of her resignation, whether she was pushed out or stepped down completely of her own accord.
Since announcing her departure, Ryan has received “an avalanche” of correspondence and phone calls from her colleagues and former players, many of them now coaches themselves.
“As I have grown older and now become a coach myself, I have an even deeper appreciation for Debbie,” said former player Dawn Staley, a member of the banner teams of the early ’90s and currently the head coach at the University of South Carolina, in a statement. (Staley leads the gossip list of potential Ryan replacements.) “She is one of the most honest, dependable and trustworthy people I know.”
Yet much of the praise of Ryan comes not because of basketball but for her work for cancer patients since surviving pancreatic cancer.
“This university saved my life 10 years ago, and so I have nothing but great things to say about being a small part of such a big thing,” said Ryan.
UVA President Theresa Sullivan commented in a press release, “She was instrumental in the planning of the recently opened Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center. This is a facility that was built from the patient’s point of view—largely because of the persuasive vision of both Debbie and the late Emily Couric.” Couric died of pancreatic cancer in 2001.
Ryan said her future might involve the cancer center, but she acknowledged that she can’t leave sports completely behind. “I don’t know if I could ever be invited to be an administrator, but I think I’d be a really good one.”
Regardless of her future or her successor, she insisted that she won’t hover over the program.
“I’m not going to be that kind of person,” she said. “If I come into a game, it will be very discreetly.”