Published March 12, 2011
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Debbie Ryan, who built Virginia's women's basketball program into a perennial NCAA tournament team and overcame pancreatic cancer, has resigned after 34 years and 736 victories.
Ryan's resignation is effective at the end of the season. The Cavaliers (16-15) are not expected to make the NCAA tournament field, a bitter pill since they will host first- and second-round games. But the 58-year-old Ryan is hoping to receive a WNIT invitation.
"I am not retiring per se, but I feel we have not lived up to my own standards and expectations this past year and I want to do what is best for our program and the University," Ryan, said in a release Saturday from the school.
The school said it would begin a national coaching search immediately.
Ryan, a former point guard whose program has produced stars such as Dawn Staley, current Cavaliers assistant coach Wendy Palmer and ACC career assists leader Sharnee Zoll, has found top talent harder to draw to Virginia in the increasingly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
Players such as Jasmine Thomas (Duke), Kara Lawson (Tennessee), Kristi Toliver (Maryland) and, this year, Elizabeth Williams of Princess Anne in Virginia Beach (Duke) left the state. And while Monica Wright was an All-American, the ACC player of the year and the defensive player of the year in 2010, the Cavaliers were still pummeled in the first round of the NCAA tourney.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said she will miss seeing Ryan on the bench.
"Debbie Ryan is a truly remarkable person and someone I consider to be one of my best friends in the coaching profession," Summitt said. "Some of the biggest games in both of our careers were played out on the court when the Lady Vols faced the Cavaliers."
That includes the 1991 national championship game, won by Tennessee in overtime, 70-67.
Ryan — one of nine coaches with at least 700 victories — was an assistant at Virginia for two years before taking over in 1977. After being elevated to the top job at age 24, her assistants have included Connecticut's Geno Auriemma.
Former players Staley (South Carolina), Audra Smith (UAB) and Tonya Cardoza (Temple) are college head coaches now, and former assistant Nikki Caldwell is the head coach at UCLA.
When Virginia opened John Paul Jones Arena in 2007, the women's basketball locker room was named for Ryan, an indication of her contributions to a program that is only 38 years old.
"Throughout her 36 years at the University of Virginia, Debbie Ryan has been the model for dignity, dedication, class and courage," athletic director Craig Littlepage said. "No one has a greater love for the University of Virginia and I'm grateful for all of her contributions to our women's basketball program and our department. ... Debbie is a unique treasure to our local community and those of us who have worked directly with her have been tremendously enriched."
Ryan, whose career record is 736-323, was inducted into the Women's Baketball Hall of Fame in 2008. Her teams have been to 24 of the 29 women's NCAA tournaments, and had a streak of 20 appearances in a row from 1983-2002, and made the round of 16 11 years in a row in that run.
The Cavaliers made consecutive Final Four appearances in 1990, '91 and '92, and their overtime loss to the Lady Vols in 1991 came in their only appearance in the title game.
Ryan was diagnosed with cancer in 2000. Her prognosis was grim, but she survived, although she said in 2009 it took years for other coaches to stop using her illness against her.
She was praised by university President Teresa A. Sullivan as "an icon in the fight against cancer" and for being instrumental in the planning of the university's Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center. The facility was built from the patient's point of view with Ryan's input.
Ryan said she plans to remain in Charlottesville in the immediate future "and choose an area of the University that fits my skills," with the Couric Center of particular interest.