Everyone involved in the press conference held held Monday for departing Virginia women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan made an effort to focus on a Hall of Fame career that spanned 36 years and included 736 wins, 24 NCAA tournament appearances and three Final Fours.
Ryan, 58, appeared on the verge of outward emotion throughout her 25 minutes on the dais, but she never lost her composure. And she refused to stray from the points she wanted to make. She talked about her love for the university, how it “saved my life” 10 years ago when she battled pancreatic cancer and how she has “enjoyed every single minute” of her time on the job.
But the questions that remained unanswered by both Ryan and Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage distracted from the warm moments the fond memories generated.
“I love my players, both past and present, and I love the people that I work with,” Ryan said. “I love coming to work every day. I guess there comes a time when everything has to end.”
Whether it was solely her choice that the end occur now – on the heels of a 16-15 season that marked the sixth time in eight seasons in which Virginia finished fifth or worse in the ACC – remains open for speculation.
One television reporter noted that when he had spoken with Ryan roughly a year and a half ago, she had told him she could see herself coaching 10 more years. When the reporter asked what had changed, Ryan responded: “I really don’t I want to talk about that. I think that basically right now my feeling is that it’s over, and I’d rather focus on other things.”
When asked how long she had considered stepping down before the official announcement was made Saturday, Ryan said: “I don’t think I want to talk about my personal decision. I just don’t think that it’s of any value. I think it’s personal to me, and I’d rather not talk about it.”
When asked whether, after all those years of recruiting and traveling and preparing and grinding, she felt any sense of relief now that she has free range to, say, take a vacation, Ryan said, “You know, honestly, it hasn’t been a relief at all because I had such a great time.”
Ryan does not believe she will be a part of the process to find her successor, and she thought it was “unfair” to be asked if there was anyone she thought might fill her shoes capably.
“I know there’s a lot of questions,” Ryan said, “and I would like to stick mainly with my career and my future.”
Whether Ryan’s future will include involvement on any level with the Virginia athletic department is murky, as well. Ryan made clear in a press release issued Saturday that she “is not retiring per se” and said Monday that her options down the road do include coaching somewhere else.
“That’s a reasonable thing to think about,” she said, “but maybe not right now.”
What is clear is that Ryan is not prepared to live a secluded life in a mountain cabin and spend the rest of her days fishing, as she has said in the past she would like to do whenever she decides to scale things back.
She has spent time over the past decade with cancer patients and remains intensely invested in the fight against cancer. She said she could envision becoming more involved with the Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center, but “I don’t think that’s going to be enough for me because I am a basketball coach. That’s who I am. I’ve been a part of athletics for my entire life, and I love it. …
“I don’t know if I would ever be invited to be an administrator, but I think I’d be a really, really good one because I know a lot about how things work, and I think I’d be good at it. But I don’t know that that’s going to be something that I end up doing.”
When asked in what role he would like to see Ryan involved at Virginia in the future, Littlepage pointed – “off the top of my head” – to many potential avenues outside the school’s athletic department, but none within its realm.
“She has many more talents than coaching,” Littlepage said. “There’s been a lot of talk about the possibility that she could do some work in support of the cancer center, and that’s a cause that is very dear to her.
“I could see Debbie Ryan broadcasting. I could see Debbie Ryan doing any number of other things related to intercollegiate athletics. I could see Debbie Ryan consulting. She talked about the number of people that she knows in the coaching profession, and what better resource would an institution or a search firm have than a person like Debbie Ryan, that knows the women’s basketball community and knows the basketball community.”
Littlepage then was directed to Ryan’s assertion that she might not be invited to be an athletic administrator and asked whether he would be open to Ryan filling such a role at Virginia.
“Again, we’re two days away,” Littlepage said. “There are so many things that she needs time to think about, so many different things that are going through everybody’s mind right now. I don’t think that we need to get boxed in to our thinking in any regard.
“Over the course of the next several months, I’m sure her and I will have a lot of discussions about the university and what the athletics role might be, what the role might be in Debbie working and continuing to make a contribution.”
Littlepage declined to address whether Ryan’s decision to step down was hers alone. He also did not accept “shocked” as an accurate description of his reaction to Ryan’s departure.
“I don’t know if there’s a word, if there’s an adjective,” Littlepage said. “But again, I respect Debbie so much for what she’s done and the way that she’s handled everything, and we’re going to have to find a way to move on now.”
The athletic director acknowledged he had a list of candidates in mind as potential replacements for Ryan – whom he called “a person who has had as much of an impact on this institution, has had as much of an impact on this university community, as I think arguably anybody has had in the time that I’ve been around the University of Virginia” – but he declined to name any of them.
He also was vague on a timeline for making the replacement hire, noting that certain candidates might not be available at the moment to discuss the job opening. That could mean Virginia will consider coaches whose teams’ seasons will extend into the NCAA or WNIT.
As for the current Virginia players, Ryan said she informed them of the decision Saturday around 10 a.m. They voted and unanimously decided to continue practicing, in anticipation that the Cavaliers will be selected as part of the WNIT field.
Ryan said she isn’t yet sure what she wants to pursue in the immediate future, but she does not envision “hovering” over the program she spent the past 36 years – two as an assistant; 34 as head coach – building into one of the most renowned in the nation.
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “Maybe I’m the one that needs the therapy. My entire adult life has been spent here, giving. And I’m proud of the fact that I am a giver. That means a lot. But I just – I guess that’s for me to figure out, and I’m sure I will.”