April 18, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Since the end of the 1976-77 season, the University of Virginia has had three head coaches in women’s basketball.
Wednesday afternoon found all three together at John Paul Jones Arena, where the newest member of the group, Tina Thompson, was introduced as the Cavaliers’ coach. The mood was celebratory.
“She’s going to do great,” Debbie Ryan said.
“I think it’s a great hire,” Joanne Boyle said. “I think it’s what this team needs.”
Ryan coached the Wahoos for 34 seasons, starting in 1977-78. Boyle followed Ryan and led the program for seven seasons before retiring from coaching last month.
UVA’s new athletics director, Carla Williams, announced Monday afternoon that Thompson, an assistant coach at Texas for the past three seasons, had been hired as Boyle’s successor. Since then, Thompson has been overwhelmed by the volume of text messages and Twitter mentions coming her way.
“But I think the thing that stood out the most,” Thompson said Wednesday, “[was that] two of the people that reached out to me immediately were Coach Ryan and Coach Boyle.
“I thought that that was first class, all the way. Neither one of them had to do that. I knew in that moment that I was coming to a special place.”
Boyle, like Ryan, offered her support to Thompson, one of the most decorated players in the history of women’s basketball.
“I said, `Hey, I’m a fan. If you need anything from me, just let me know,'” Boyle recalled Wednesday.
“I just want the program to be successful. I want her to be successful. I want Carla to be successful, so whatever I can do to help, I’m here.”
At a press conference held in JPJ’s dining hall, the audience included Thompson’s son, Dyllan, and her mother, Lady; UVA officials, among them President Teresa Sullivan; coaches; administrators; and other athletics department staffers.
Also in attendance were the returning players from a team that finished 19-14 after advancing to the NCAA tournament’s second round this season. One of those players is Jocelyn Willoughby, who was in Indiana on Monday and Tuesday to serve as the student-athlete member of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee.
She was on her flight Monday afternoon when the news broke that Thompson was headed to UVA.
“I didn’t find out until after the whole world knew, basically,” Willoughby said, smiling.
By the time Willoughby returned to JPJ late Tuesday afternoon, Thompson’s first meeting with the returning players had already started. But what little Willoughby heard from her new coach impressed her.
“In terms of what she had to say about her expectations for the team and getting to know us first and valuing the player-coach relationship and trying to develop us, it was really good to hear,” Willoughby said. “So we’re excited for the future.”
Thompson, who retired from the WNBA in 2013 as the league’s all-time leading scorer, also starred at the University of Southern California and won two Olympic gold medals with the United States. She’ll be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September, and UVA players did not need to Google her name.
“I had heard so much about her accomplishments,” said Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-9 center who’ll be a junior in 2018-19. “She’s a well-known person.
“With some of my goals in basketball, she has already been there, done that, which is playing professionally, which is playing in the WNBA, which is being a great player. So I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great experience.”
Boyle has a family matter that requires her full attention, and her retirement presented Williams with the opportunity to make her first major coaching hire at UVA. Williams came to Virginia from the University of Georgia in December.
She was looking, Williams said Wednesday, for a “person of high character that embodies the values of the University of Virginia; a person who values higher education and the lifelong benefits of learning; someone who could connect with our players and create an environment where the players wanted to exceed expectations in the classroom, on the court, and in life; someone with great talent and the ability to attract great talent; a coach who knows first-hand what it takes to win championships; a coach that cares about the players as people, above all else; [and] a teacher who is willing to learn, willing to share, and eager to impart wisdom on young people.”
Not until May 2015 did Thompson start coaching, but she distinguished herself almost immediately in her new profession. At the end of Thompson’s second season at Texas, head coach Karen Aston promoted her to associate head coach. The Longhorns (28-7) earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen this season.
Thompson’s experience at Texas, coupled with her two decades as an elite player, “prepared her for this opportunity,” Williams said.
“At this moment, we need a winner. We need an inspiring leader and a fierce competitor, someone our players and recruits will be inspired to follow, someone who loves to teach young people how to be winners in life.”
When she joined Aston’s staff at Texas, Thompson acknowledged, she did not expect that three years later she would take over a program with the tradition of UVA, which made three Final Four appearances under Ryan. But she quickly realized she wanted to be a head coach one day.
“In everything that I do, I want to be the absolute best, and I want to lead from the front,” Thompson said. “It’s where I enjoy being, in the front and leading and teaching.”
When she learned of the opening at UVA, Thompson said, she wondered if the job would go to a more experienced coach.
“The choice of putting me in this chair to lead this team and this program is probably not the easy choice,” said Thompson, 43. “It’s a choice of courage to take a chance on someone like me that is not as experienced as maybe a sitting head coach who has a lot of experience.
“I am very out of the box. I think that Miss Carla and I get along very well, because she’s very out of the box, too, and she’s not afraid of making the decision that she thinks is best and not going with the comfortable one that everyone else might think is best.”
Williams said: “The process was fun for me. Some people may think it took a long time, but I think it took the appropriate time to get the right person. And I’m convinced that we have the right person.”
Among the UVA head coaches who attended the press conference was Thompson’s counterpart in men’s basketball, Tony Bennett, with whom she has traded text messages.
As a basketball fan, Thompson said, she’s familiar with the success Bennett has had at UVA. His Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 nationally for much of this season and earned the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
“I love the fact that his program is cheered for the toughest parts of basketball, that in watching them play, the crowd gets excited about the possibilities of a shot-clock violation,” Thompson said.
She smiled. “That is just not normal. It’s not. You know, we’re at a time where we cheer the game with amazing slam dunks or 3-point shots or fancy plays and passes. [Bennett has] an old-school mentality, and I’m old school, and I love that about his program.”
In their final season under Boyle, the UVA women ranked sixth among ACC teams in scoring defense and seventh in field-goal percentage defense. Thompson said she wants the program to continue to excel in that area.
“I think that defense is one thing that you can absolutely control, because so much of it is based on effort,” Thompson said. “Of course, everybody wants to score a lot of points, but you give yourself a chance, even if you’re struggling offensively, if you’re stopping the other team from scoring.”