Ryan steps down: Iconic women's basketball coach leaves after 34 years

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.



She helped bring Women's Basketball to the national limelight. Charlottesville is lucky to have this lady call our little village home.

A surging 7 digit tide of red ink flowing out of the women's basketball team has washed away Coach Ryan and her $900,000 annual salary.

Thanks for the memories but it's about time....

Would you use a term equivalent to "The petite blonde" in writing about a man? I don't think I've read a similar article about a men's coach.

Would you use a term equivalent to "The petite blonde" in writing about a man? I don't think I've read a similar ccomment about a men's coach.

I seriously doubt a reporter from Staunton had ANYTHING to do with Ryan's "retirement." I am willing to bet that on-court performance was the determining factor. That performance, which hasn't been very impressive for many years, was hurt by an apparent inability to recruit well enough to actually contend. It's a results-oriented business and in today's climate if you are going to hold the men's coach and the football coach accountable for wins and losses, she deserves the same scrutiny.

She had a GREAT run, and has always been a class act. I hope she enjoys her retirement as much as Hoo fans enjoyed watching her teams play. She deserves nothing less.

Yeah, I can't imagine HIte had much effect. The writing was on the wall.

What bugs you so much about the phrase "petite blonde"? Are you a "petite guy"?

I am sure many females would be horrified to be categorized as petite blondes. Have you read the descriptions of the mens coach? They are quick to his looks....

@ Chris

That would be funny wouldn't it to see descriptions of men's coaches like,

"The strapping brunette...."

"The 6'2" husky baldy..."

"The hulking monstrosity of a red head...."


@ Lynn, the phrase "petite blonde" on it's own is fine...more or less, it's not really all that descriptive when you think about it. But in this context it highlights how we almost always include physical appearance in our thinking about women (and in our judgements about them) and how it's entirely irrelevant to the story in this article. Further, it's not something that one would see in a similar piece about a male coach stepping down. (As highlighted perfectly by boooo!)

I'd say I'm svelte rather than petite.

I agree, 100%, Chris. I just think we've all gotten sooooo sensitive about descriptors. I can see articles in the future, "male coach," "female coach," etc., and I think a bit of description just adds flavor to the story. Newswriters can describe Tony Bennett as "hunky," "gorgeous," whatever. I guess I'd be described as a wanna-be blonde, petite, but very feisty.

You ladies crack me up. You spend billions on beauty products, watch religiously the red carpet and who wears what and all I see in advertising is how you can look younger yet you don't want to be judged on appearance. Its so much easier being a fat balding guy and all I need is a sense of humor or a couple of bucks.

Debbie looks so so tired in this picture and Jay James makes the same comment. I just hope she is well. She has been an inspiration.
Wishing you all the best Debbie.

If I had made the salary Debbie Ryan has made for the last 36 years, I would be ready to retire too. She's no longer the youngest chick in town. Compounded by her unfortunate health issues. I wish the petite blonde nothing but the best, and would encourage her to take it easy and enjoy her life now! A cruise is the best place to start!

I hope UVA hires her to replace the mens coach.

500k to coach earthlings to toss a ball in a net?

When I stop laughing from the absurdity, I might add more verbiage. Perhaps make the senior captain of THE team 'coach' and then fire the 500k joke do nothing. Obviously it is a wasteful position. And it's painfully apparent that 500k spent does not equal a winning team. Hmmmm.

This is higher learning: pay more for minutia that wont earn you a dollar more.

Don't be jealous freespeech that she makes more then you and I and everyone in this forum combined 20 times over.

her salary was $900k, not $500k.

I understand what petite blonde means , small blonde haired person , but what does the writer mean by calling her Iconic ?

I recall her going through her cancer treatment and admiring how brave and tough she was. She had one of the most painful (and lethal) cancers known and handled like a champ. People 20yrs from now won't remember her win\loss records but will remember how she touched their lives. Debbie is the type of woman I would want to coach my daughter.

speaking of wons and losses, the article was incorrect about debbie's record this season. uva women were 16/15 during the regular season...only a slight difference from 15/16, but the difference is between a winning season and a losing season. she has had only TWO losing season in her career and one was her first season as head coach. this is much more important than the fact that "she has never won a national championship," since only one school out of hundreds accomplishes this each year, but someone wins every basketball game. post season, as of sunday, 3/20, they are 2/1, making the record so far for this season 18/16.