The unsinkable Debbie Ryan
UVA icon Debbie Ryan might be beloved simply for transforming the women’s basketball team into a powerhouse during her 25-year tenure as coach. Add to that her battle against a cancer with more losses than wins, and the University may have to add canonization to Ryan’s honors.
The feisty and inspiring coach was found in the summer of 2000 to be suffering from pancreatic duct cancer— just three weeks after State Senator Emily Couric revealed that she had just been diagnosed with a much more advanced form of the disease. Couric died 15 months later.
Ryan, 48, who speaks publicly on the subject, is not tired of talking about cancer because, she explains, “We’re all affected by it.”
While no stranger to talking to the press, Ryan called her visit to the Hot Seat “one of the hardest interviews I’ve ever done.”
What brought you to Charlottesville? This job and graduate school. I came here as a graduate assistant in field hockey and basketball. Then I got the head coaching job.
Best thing about living here? It’s small enough to know a lot of people, and it’s big enough to have your own life without always being in the public eye. Also, its beauty, and the way people take care of each other. It’s a connected community. And the health care system is obviously a big plus.
What’s the worst? We don’t have a Dairy Queen right here in Charlottesville.
Your favorite hangout? I’m at BW3 a lot— my job takes me there. And Talbots, because they put me in clothes. I love the Downtown Mall and the University Grounds.
What’s the most overrated virtue? Happiness. I don’t think people understand it, that you have to look inside yourself to find it. It’s overrated because people chase after it.
What accomplishment are you proudest of? [My role in attracting] the type of person who goes through this program and the University and [affecting] how they come out of it.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My bowlegs.
What do people find most annoying about you? [She laughs.] Probably a lot of things. Sometimes I’m not patient, and I get focused on one thing until the end. And I like to do things my way. I can be so focused that I may not hear what someone’s saying right at that moment, and that may annoy people.
Whom do you admire? [Former UVA athletic director] Terry Holland. He was a role model for me when I was a young coach, and he helped me develop as a coach— despite my being a coach of a different gender, which was not fashionable at the time. I admire Barbara Kelly for starting the program here and for being strong and putting things on the table for us. And I admire a lot of the health care professionals who treated me. They’re so talented and empathetic, and a lot don’t get paid enough or get enough recognition.
What’s your favorite read? People magazine.
What are you reading now? Not much. Coaching doesn’t lend itself to reading this time of year, so mostly spiritual books. I like fiction and autobiography, and I just read Mike Krzyzewski’s latest book [Five-Point Play: The Story of Duke’s Amazing 2000-2001 Championship Season].
What subject causes you to rant? Discrimination of any sort.
What’s the best thing about life in the 21st century? Being alive. Having the opportunity to experience all that’s happening right now— which for me wasn’t always a promise.
If you could come back as a car, what model would it be? A BMW 325 convertible.
What do you drive? I drive that one and a [Toyota] 4Runner. There’s the contrast in my personality.
What’s the most trouble you’ve ever gotten in? I’ve gotten in a lot of little trouble. I almost got fired here 24 or 25 years ago when I was very young. I stopped and brought beer on the bus. That was a very poor idea on my part.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Ice cream— anything from Dairy Queen and mint chocolate chip— and pasta.
Must-see TV? The Practice and Nick at Nite.
What’s your most embarrassing moment? Forgetting someone’s name in a press conference. That’s embarrassing.
Describe a perfect day: I’d spend the day with family and close friends, not doing anything significant, just hanging out enjoying the weather. It doesn’t matter where. It could include a game or practice because the team is part of my extended family.
Favorite bumper sticker? Emily Couric bumper stickers because they remind me of her.