Debbie Ryan in 2002, two years after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
"We always have a list for whatever the position," says UVA athletic director Craig Littlepage, when asked about a Ryan successor.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE
The 2010-11 UVA women's basketball season will be head coach Debbie Ryan's last after 34 years. The surprise announcement came on a Saturday in a cryptically worded press release.
"I am not retiring per se," Ryan says in the release, "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."
The team had a dismal 5-9 season in the ACC, went 16-15 overall, and fell in the first round of the ACC tournament. It's now hoping for a bid to the Women's National Invitational Tournament.
The petite blonde is one of the most respected women's basketball coaches around, and the release notes her overall career record of 736-323. But Ryan, 58, never won a national championship, and Virginia's presence in the NCAA Final Four three years in a row happened two decades ago: 1990-1992. She makes $502,000 at UVA, according to the university.
In 2000, Ryan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal types, with only 5 percent still alive after five years.
Ryan found out she was ill three weeks after State Senator Emily Couric, who died 15 months later. "The Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center is of particular interest to me, but I have not settled on anything yet," she says in the release.
Ryan also says she plans to remain employed by UVA and will remain in Charlottesville for the immediate future.
The announcement of Ryan's retirement from basketball took some by surprise.
"I was caught off guard," says WINA's Jay James, who has broadcast UVA women's basketball since 2007. "I was just talking to Debbie last week, and she was talking about the upcoming season.
"We even kind of joked around about things she'd be doing when she retired," continues James. "I didn't know it would be the next week."
However, he also says, "By watching Debbie, you could see the fatigue. And she said the team isn't where she wants it to be."
Few coaches have as lengthy a tenure as Ryan, who is synonymous with UVA women's basketball. She was an assistant coach for two years before becoming head coach in 1977, and the program has had only two Ryan-less years in its history.
"How many coaches do you see that last 30 years?" asks James. "I don't think you'll ever see any coaches over 20 years ever again."
Blistering her work as "mediocre," Staunton sports reporter Patrick Hite called for her ouster in a March 5 column. Ryan had not returned a phone call at press time.
UVA athletics director Craig Littlepage lauded Ryan in the release: "Throughout her 36 years at the University of Virginia, Debbie Ryan has been the model for dignity, dedication, class and courage. 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. In addition to her contributions to the game nationally, her impact has been felt on the international basketball scene as well."
"Debbie is a unique treasure to our local community and those of us who have worked directly with her have been tremendously enriched."
A national search for her replacement begins immediately.
Updated 5:11pm with photos and salary.
Correction 3-15-11. Ryan's age– 58– was wrong in the original version.
Correction 3-25-11: Ryan had a 16-15 regular season. Those numbers were reversed in the original story.