Debbie dilemma: Should admiration trump a losing record?

My son recently learned how to "wave bye-bye," and he’s completely enamored with the action. It’s a good skill for him and the rest of us to know, since Virginians are going to be waving “bye-bye” to a very important person pretty soon.

With UVA's loss to Charlotte in the WNIT quarterfinals, Debbie Ryan’s 36-year career at Virginia has ended. Since Ryan announced her impending resignation on March 12, tributes have been coming fast, as well they should. Ryan’s legendary kindness, tenacity, competitiveness and compassion are being lauded as much as (if not more than) her 739 career victories and 20 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, 12 in the Sweet Sixteen, 3 ACC Tournament titles, and 11 ACC regular-season championships.

Forgive the second consecutive week's reference to Shakespeare, but there's something rotten in the UVA athletic department. Circumstantial evidence it may be, but shrouded in the emotional farewells and hidden among the well-deserved testimonials and laurels are undeniable signs that Ryan was forced out of her job. It may be ugly, but is it necessary?

Ryan’s Cavaliers haven’t made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament in more than 10 years, and in that time there have been five seasons the Cavs didn’t win 20 games, something that happened only once in the previous 17 years.

This year the Lady Cavaliers ended their season ranked 8 in the ACC, with a 5-9 record in-conference and a 19-16 record overall, losing to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tournament. Recent seasons were equally lackluster.

In 2009-2010, UVA finished third in the ACC, with a 9-5 in-conference record and 21-10 overall. In 2008-2009, the numbers added up to a fifth-seed ranking with 8-6 and 24-10 records. In 2007-2008, the Lady  Cavs were #4, 10-4 (tied with Duke) and 24-10, a huge improvement over ’06-‘07 that saw Virginia finish ranked 8 with 5-9 and 19-15 records.

It’s been an inconsistent and disappointing decade for UVA women’s basketball. So apparently, sometime during this past season, it was decided Debbie Ryan was going to get the boot, although her exit is being masked by the George Welsh treatment.

Welsh retired from UVA football in 2000 after failing to win seven games in the regular season for the first time in 14 years. Virginia lauded and feted and toasted and roasted and hailed Welsh as the conquering hero. Now they're doing the same for Debbie Ryan. But while Welsh made the decision to retire on his own terms, it's clear Ryan didn’t.

Neither she nor athletic director Craig Littlepage will discuss the circumstances of her resignation. But Ryan is only 58, and she told the press, “I am a basketball coach."

She refuses to rule out coaching at another school, although she’s never worked anywhere else, having started in Charlottesville right out of college. Ryan told reporters, “I'm happy to continue to coach here as long as they want me to in terms of my players,” which evidently they did, since several of Ryan’s latest recruits obtained full releases from their National Letters of Intent after the coach unexpectedly resigned. Does that sound like woman who was ready to leave her position?

Debbie Ryan’s resignation seems unfair and cruel, but what should happen to legendary coaches when they start slipping? What will Virginia Tech do to Frank Beamer when he stops winning 10 games a season? What will Tennessee do with Pat Summitt when championships dry up? Penn State is chomping at the bit to get rid of Joe Paterno, and everyone knows Florida State fired Bobby Bowden.

What should UVA have done with this amazing woman who built a well-respected program? Sentiment, respect, and loyalty may not trump winning, but as we wave “bye bye” to Debbie Ryan, it sure feels like they should.
Juanita lives on a farm in Charlotte County with her husband, son, and many dogs.