By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the news broke March 12 that Debbie Ryan would step down as University of Virginia women’s basketball coach at season’s end, Joanne Boyle was intrigued.
She was in Berkeley, Calif., some 2,700 miles from Charlottesville, but she was familiar with UVa and has deep roots in this part of the country.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Pittsburgh, Boyle holds a bachelor’s degree from Duke, where she lettered four times in hoops. She has a master’s degree from another ACC school, North Carolina, and her mother, Joan, lives in Raleigh, N.C.
Boyle spent nine years as a Duke assistant before going 67-29 in three seasons as the University of Richmond’s head coach. Six seasons into her tenure as University of California head coach, Boyle heard about Ryan’s looming departure and wondered if she could land in Charlottesville.
“It definitely entered my mind,” Boyle recalled Monday.
In April 2007, Boyle turned down an offer to return to Duke as head coach. Four years later, though, she decided the time was right for a move.
Boyle, 47, was introduced Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. She’s the fourth head coach in the history of the UVa women’s program.
“She was a perfect match,” athletics director Craig Littlepage said during the press conference at which he and Boyle spoke.
Boyle praised Ryan, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, as a “mentor, inspiration and dear friend” and said they talked to each other on Saturday. That was the day UVa announced Boyle’s hiring.
In nine seasons as a head coach, Boyle has compiled a 204-93 record, with five trips to the NCAA tournament and four to the WNIT, which Cal won in 2010. That she has coached at two other academically rigorous schools, Duke and Richmond, made Boyle even more appealing to UVa.
“From the start of this process,” Littlepage said, “we established that we would seek a head coach with demonstrated success in college programs that were similar to the University of Virginia.”
Boyle said: “I think you’ve got to sell what you have, and there’s a great product here … I’ve always been at academic schools, so it’s selling what I believe in.”
Her record against UVa is 2-0. Richmond beat UVa 66-57 at University Hall on Nov. 27, 2004. Two years ago, in the second round of the NCAA tourney, Cal crushed Virginia 99-73 in Los Angeles.
Chelsea Shine was a freshman forward on the UVa team that lost to Cal in L.A. Shine attended Boyle’s introductory press conference Monday at JPJ, along with several teammates, including first-year forward Jazmin Pitts.
“I’m excited,” Pitts said. “I think she’s going to be a great coach. We met with her this morning, and she just had a lot of good things to say, and we all got really excited, and we’re just looking forward to the next step.”
Virginia finished 19-16 this season after losing to Charlotte in the WNIT quarterfinals. Eleven of the top 12 scorers from Ryan’s final team at Virginia are expected back in 2011-12, along with forward Britny Edwards, who redshirted this season.
“I’m glad I get to be a part of it,” Shine said, “because I’ll be able to come back and have a connection with [Boyle] and with the staff here. I get to be a part of the Debbie Ryan era and then get to experience the start of something that seems like it’s going to be very great.”
Boyle’s message to the players Monday morning, Pitts said, focused on “trusting each other and believing in each other and doing things as a team, because that’s the only way we’re going to get somewhere, if we do it as a team.
“It definitely is exciting. I only played with Coach Ryan for a year, but it happened, and when stuff happens, you just gotta step up to the next level.”
In 34 seasons under Ryan, the Wahoos won 739 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament 24 times. Thrice the ‘Hoos made Final Four appearances: in 1990, ’91 and ’92. In 1991, in fact, Virginia reached the NCAA title game before losing to Tennessee.
Not since 2000, however, have the Cavaliers played in the Sweet 16, and they haven’t won the ACC tournament since 1993. Virginia has lost 18 games in a row to Duke.
“My goal is to do the best I can and win as much as we can and build a sustaining program and build a championship team,” Boyle said.
“People always ask about the timeline. I can’t tell you. I’ve got to get a staff and a team together and start working with them and instill discipline and work ethic and confidence, and when you do that, then anything can happen. But my goal isn’t to come in and just be average.”
Guests at the news conference include Boyle’s mother and Sarah Holsinger, a Virginian (Luray) who was the director of operations for the Cal women’s basketball program. Holsinger, who has degrees from Bridgewater and James Madison University, will be part of Boyle’s staff at UVa, but the other slots may not be filled immediately.
“It’s a work in progress,” Boyle said. “I’ve got a lot of feelers out there. Obviously, I’ve had a lot of interest.”
She was entrenched at Duke as an assistant under then-coach Gail Goestenkors when, in November 2001, Boyle nearly died from an ateriovenous malformation in her brain. She required surgery for this genetic condition, and her brush with death changed her perspective on her professional goals.
“I know it’s hard to say, but the AVM was probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” Boyle said Monday, “and I think people that have been in experiences like that can understand what I mean by that. I was at Duke for nine years, had a great career, loved it, was really comfortable — and that’s the word, ‘comfortable’ — with Gail.
“We were going to the Final Four and we were always finishing one or two in the conference, and I got comfortable. The life‑threatening illness deal kind of sends you into a different thought process, and that is: ‘Life’s really short, you never know when it’s going to end, and I didn’t want to be comfortable the rest of my life.’ “
The next season found her at Richmond, a head coach for the first time. Like many in her profession, Boyle said, she had a fear of failure. But after her health scare she realized that “if you go out and you fail, you’re still alive and you’ll figure out something else to do,” Boyle said, “and that’s what got me out the door.”
In the spring of 2009, UVa hired a new men’s basketball coach, Tony Bennett, from a Pac-10 school, Washington State. Bennett, whose wife, Laurel, atttended the press conference, was among the people Boyle thanked Monday.
The decision to leave Cal was difficult for her, Boyle said, but conversations with Bennett helped convince her that UVa would be a good fit for her.
“It was the right decision for him,” Boyle said, “and he had to go through the process in his own head and with his family in order to make that, and it’s not easy. He just reassured me that some of the feelings I was feeling were typical … and to just follow your gut, and that’s what I did.”
The UVa job came open at “a perfect time in my life,” Boyle said, “and it gets me back to the East Coast close to my family, and I know the ACC and the challenges it has, but how competitive it is.”
There are “a lot of pieces that just fit together,” Boyle said.