UVA women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan joined a select few June 14 when she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee. Ryan was a member of the 10th group of inductees to the Hall.
Ryan is fast approaching Thomas Jefferson as an institutional figure at UVA, albeit with more wins. The 2007-2008 season was Ryan’s 31st at UVA in a career that has included 20 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, 12 trips to the Sweet Sixteen, seven Final Four teams, and one championship game appearance—not to mention a career that has spanned more than three decades in which women’s basketball has jumped from a largely ignored (and underfunded) college sport to a sport that now boasts its own professional league.
Dawn Staley played four years under UVA coach Debbie Ryan. Staley’s now a head coach herself, at the University of South Carolina: “I’m a true testament to the effect a coach has on a player’s life.”
“It’s changed a thousand fold,” says Ryan, “from the amount of support the sport has received to the athletes themselves and how we’re really starting to see what women can do athletically. And we’re still probably just scratching the surface of that.”
Perhaps no one personifies those changes as much as one of Ryan’s former players, Dawn Staley. Staley was named national player of the year twice while at UVA from 1988 to 1992, played in the American Basketball League (a short-lived precursor to the WNBA), then the WNBA, and is now the head coach at the University of South Carolina.
“Debbie is a coach who allowed her players to learn from mistakes,” says Staley via e-mail. “It was an ‘on the job training’ approach. Most coaches would have stifled the growth of our talented team, but Debbie’s style created an atmosphere where we were destined to succeed. I have adopted that approach and found success with it.”
In a profession that tends to make nomads of coaches, Ryan says one of the reasons she’s chosen to stay at UVA for over three decades is its financial and emotional support for her program, even when women’s basketball wasn’t the draw it is now.
“We’re not one of those schools that lagged behind Title IX,” says Ryan. “We were always out front and wanting to be on the cutting edge of that. That always made me proud of being a part of this school.”
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