March 15, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When her coaching career began, the University of Virginia women’s basketball team played its home games at University Hall. The team is now based in John Paul Jones Arena, and that is where Debbie Ryan will be Thursday night.

If the Wahoos (16-15) beat Morgan State (17-14), they will move on to the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. If they lose, Ryan will walk off the court at JPJ for the final time as UVa’s coach.

After 1,059 games as head coach — 736 of which have ended with her team ahead — Ryan is nearing the finish line of her storied career at UVa. Athletics director Craig Littlepage announced Saturday morning that Ryan had decided to step down at season’s end.

Two days later, Ryan was at JPJ for a press conference at which Littlepage also took questions after she finished. Ryan succeeded in maintaining her composure on an emotionally taxing afternoon, but clearly it was not easy.

“I first want to say that this has been a great ride for me,” said Ryan, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. “It’s been really fun, and it’s been the best years of my life. I love this university. I love people here in this department, and this has been really difficult for me. ”

At UVa, Ryan has worked for four presidents and five ADs, and “I’ve had to train every single one of them,” she said with a smile.

“I don’t know if anybody’s really as lucky as I’ve been to have such a great place and such great people to work with during my career.”

In 2000, Ryan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her subsequent battle with the disease changed her in profound ways.

“The one thing that cancer has taught me is that time is really the only commodity that we have,” she said Monday. “Time is all we have, and what you do with that time is the most important thing. And so I’ve worked really hard, especially in the last 10 years, to be the best Debbie Ryan I could be at everything I did, because really I was gifted with a period of time that I didn’t know I was going to have.

“I think I’ve done everything I could to be the best coach, the best friend, the best mentor, the best daughter, the best sister that I could be, and that really was what my goal was once I knew that I might have a chance to live longer than most pancreatic-cancer patients.”

In his opening remarks, Littlepage thanked Ryan “for a great run. This is a person who has had as much of an impact on this institution, has had as much of an impact on this university community, as I think arguably anybody has had in the time that I’ve been around the University of Virginia.”

Before moving into administration, Littlepage had two stints as an assistant under former men’s basketball coach Terry Holland at UVa. When Littlepage arrived at Virginia, Ryan was an assistant to then-women’s coach Dan Bonner.

Littlepage said he remembers “many occasions where the women’s team would finish practice, and our men’s team would come out and [the players] would be going through a pre-practice routine, stretching, getting themselves ready. What struck me about Debbie in the early years was, she would always stay around.

“Sometimes we would stand around on the court, sometimes we would be sitting in a chair on the sideline, but here was a person that showed an unusually high level of interest in: How do I get better? How do I help our team get better? How do I help my players get better? And she wasn’t hung up on anything related to gender. She just wanted to learn as much as she could.”

Save six seasons in the 1980s, when he was head coach at Penn and then at Rutgers, Littlepage has worked with Ryan at UVa.

“She’s one of a kind,” he said.

Ryan is one of only nine active Division I women’s coaches to have at least 700 career victories. She has guided the ‘Hoos to the NCAA tournament 24 times, with three Final Four appearances (1990, ’91 and ’92). Virginia advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals seven times and to the Sweet Sixteen 12 times.

In 1991, UVa played in the NCAA title game, losing to Tennessee in overtime.

“The funny thing about it is, when you think about the past, you really don’t think about wins and losses and those kinds of things,” Ryan said. “I think about the people and the relationships that I’ve had a chance to be a part of. They’ve been just tremendous for me.”

Her former players include Val Ackerman, Donna Holt, Cathy Grimes, Dawn Staley, Heather and Heidi Burge, Tammi Reiss, Jenny Boucek, Dena Evans, Tonya Cardoza, Wendy Palmer and Monica Wright. Her assistants have included Geno Auriemma and Nikki Caldwell.

Many of her peers and her former players have reached out to Ryan since the announcement Saturday.

“There has been just an avalanche of messages, e-mails, phone calls,” she said. “I have not had a chance to answer even a fraction of them. There have been people in the pro ranks, people in the high school ranks, people in the college ranks. It’s been overwhelming to me the amount of attention that this has attracted. It’s surprised me in a lot of ways, and it’s made me feel a little uncomfortable at times.”

Ryan was asked Monday about her status as a pioneer in the women’s game, whose popularity has increased dramatically since her early days at UVa.

“I’m just real proud to be able to say I was a part of it, and that I helped some things along the way, and I helped to develop some really, really great young women that have gone on to their own journeys and their own lives and to their own succeess,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to reap the benefits of Title IX as a player, but I was able to reap the benefits as a coach.”

Ryan didn’t rule out coaching again one day, and she’s intrigued by the possibility of working in athletics administration. Another option might be a position in UVa’s Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center.

“I’m not really sure yet, because I think that I need to take a step back and look at everything before I jump into anything,” Ryan said. “There will be opportunities for me from all different directions.”

For now, she’s focused on the 64-team WNIT, in which Ryan hopes to coach six games. After she told her players Saturday morning that this season would be her last as their coach, Ryan asked them about the WNIT.

“They made their own decision about wanting to play, and to a woman they were all in,” she said. “Then we started practice again on Sunday, and they’ve been exceptional. It’s what I would expect of them.

“I think they are really excited and really committed to just doing the absolute best they can do at this point.”

Asked about the timetable for hiring Ryan’s successor, Littlepage said that will be “a function of when people are available and willing to talk.”

The ‘Hoos have not won the ACC tournament since 1993. They have not reached the NCAA tourney’s Sweet Sixteen since 2000. That doesn’t lessen Littlepage’s optimism.

“This program is in very good shape,” he said, and ” a new coach coming in has an opportunity to inherit what I think is a very solid team with great young women that are committed.

“I think there is great potential for this program to start the climb back to a position where it’s a championship-level program, both from a conference standpoint and from a national standpoint.”

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