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Ryan a mix of compassion, competitor

"I will remain in Charlottesville and choose an area of the University that fits my skills," Debbie Ryan said. Andrew Shurtleff/US Presswire

There's something that her former players come to realize about coach Debbie Ryan. When they think back on the biggest successes in their careers at Virginia, Ryan seems a bit in the periphery, as if always letting them have the glory.

But when they think about difficulties and challenges they faced, Ryan is front and center. Because she was always there to help them.

"In the bad times, I remember so much of Debbie -- her strengths and her leadership," said former Virginia player Jenny Boucek, now an assistant coach with the WNBA's Seattle Storm. "In the good times, though, she kind of faded into the woodwork. She didn't need to be in the spotlight. I remember celebrating with my teammates, and she'd never be the center of attention.

"But if we were struggling, she was there to lead and guide us. She's proven in every way that it was never about her. It was about her players -- I don't know that any coach could love their players any more genuinely than she does."

Saturday, Virginia announced that after 34 seasons, Ryan is stepping down as head coach. She began in 1977-78, when the UVa women's basketball program was just starting its fifth season of existence.

Over the next three decades, Virginia would make 24 NCAA tournament appearances and advance to the Final Four three times. Ryan would win 736 games, and beat her most fearsome foe: pancreatic cancer.

And she would reach out to people, quietly and modestly, whenever she sensed they needed help -- or just some encouraging words. Even when those people happened to be her opponents.

When North Carolina player Jessica Breland was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the summer of 2009, she said Ryan was one of the first people to contact her, sending a Build-a-Bear stuffed toy and get-well wishes.

Or there was the night in December 2001 when then-Duke coach Gail Goestenkors was sitting on the visitors bench at Virginia before a game, feeling like her team was falling apart. Two of the Blue Devils had told her right before the trip to Charlottesville that they were homesick and unhappy, and so they were leaving the program, which put Duke's roster down to eight players.

"I know I was just in a stupor about it," Goestenkors recalled. "Debbie came over while the teams were warming up and talked with me. She said, 'It's going to be all right, don't let this get you down. You're a great coach.'

"It had a tremendous effect on me and changed my outlook and helped me to move forward. And we ended up going to the Final Four that year. I have so much gratitude to her for reaching out to me."

Now some might ask, cynically, "Who won the game that night?" Duke did; it was the ACC's best team that year. But if you think that story is some kind of reflection on Ryan being more compassionate than competitive, you're completely wrong. Ryan is one of those coaches who has proven you can be both at the same time.

Her kindness could be demonstrated by hundreds of individual stories told both by people who know her well and those who were strangers that she aided.

And her feisty competitiveness shows not just in how she built her program into a national-championship contender while dealing with the behind-the-scenes battles that women's coaches of her generation fought, but also how she dealt with her cancer diagnosis in 2000.

"When the doctors were telling her about her chances, they were very, very, very slim," said Boucek, who played at UVa from 1992 to 1996. "I went there to see her right when she got sick and she was finding this out and trying to process it. And at one point, she looked me in the eye and said, 'You know, they're saying this and that, but they don't know me!'

"It was like as far as Debbie was concerned, the percentages might be true, but she wasn't just like everybody else. She was a fighter."

Ryan, 58, is a native of New Jersey and graduate of Ursinus who came to UVa right out of college in 1975 to be an assistant coach for both basketball and field hockey. She became head women's basketball coach for 1977-78. And in February 1978, Charlottesville was the site of the first ACC tournament for women's basketball.

Ryan, recalling that inaugural event, once said, "Who knows what kind of team I was putting on the floor then," in the same joking, self-deprecating way she seemed to frequently talk about her career.

She always credited older coaches such as NC State's Kay Yow and Maryland's Chris Weller for being the first stalwarts of ACC women's basketball. Yet Ryan really was there for the true birth of what the women's college game subsequently has become.

"When I first started at Duke and we weren't very good, Virginia was great," said Goestenkors, who's now at Texas. "But Debbie never ran the score up on us, and she was complimentary of what we were doing.

"She always wanted to do what was best for women's basketball. Every ACC meeting, she was opinionated and passionate, but it was for the game itself. It wasn't what was best for Debbie Ryan or Virginia or even the ACC. But what was best for the entire game. I learned so much in those meetings from her, Chris Weller and Kay Yow."

Weller is retired from coaching, and Yow passed away in 2009 after a long battle with cancer. Like Ryan, they were coaches who helped build women's college athletics from the ground up.

"They got into the profession when there wasn't any money, there wasn't any prestige," Goestenkors said. "They just loved the game of women's basketball and wanted to make it great.

"They were the ones who got things going. The younger generation doesn't always understand or appreciate that these were people who drove team vans and helped wash uniforms and really had to fight for the things we take for granted today. We talk about our players taking things for granted, but I think coaches sometimes do, too. Coaches like Debbie paved the way for all that we have today."

UConn's Geno Auriemma, who was an assistant to Ryan at UVa from 1981 to 1985, knows how much she contributed to his early career.

"Debbie has been one of the most influential people in my life," Auriemma said via an e-mailed statement. "Without the opportunity that she gave me and the support I received at the University of Virginia, my life would be totally different than it is today. She will be missed by all her players, present and former, but most importantly, the game will miss her."

Yes, it will … but I hope, in time, Ryan really doesn't much miss coaching the game. Because there is so much else for her to do in life, especially with her great desire to help others. And she truly shouldn't have any regrets about her coaching career at Virginia.

Probably Ryan's most painful loss came in overtime to Tennessee in the 1991 national championship game. Virginia also lost in the Final Four semifinals in 1990 and '92, both times to Stanford. With players such as Dawn Staley, Tammi Reiss, Tonya Cardoza, Dena Evans and twins Heather and Heidi Burge, Virginia came oh-so-close but didn't win an NCAA title.

However, the Cavaliers were in the mix for a long time. From 1987 to 1997, the team that beat Virginia in the NCAA tournament either won the national championship ('87, '89, '90, '91, '92, '95, '96) or went to the Final Four ('88, '93, '97) every season but one.

And that one season, 1994, when North Carolina won the NCAA title but didn't play Virginia in the tournament, guess who was the only team to beat the Tar Heels all year? Virginia. The Cavaliers gave UNC both its losses that season.

Ryan's influence is vast. She coached Val Ackerman, who went on to help launch the WNBA and became its first president. Ryan also coached some of the greatest players in ACC history, such as Staley, Wendy Palmer and Monica Wright. She also was a coach for various squads in USA Basketball. Staley became a three-time Olympic gold medalist.

Yes, it's a harsh world in competitive sports, especially now in the Internet age. People will point out that Virginia hasn't been past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2000. They will say that as women's basketball continues to grow, the bottom line must be not just winning games, but performing well deep into the postseason.

They'll say it was "time" for Ryan to step aside, and they'll begin the immediate speculation about her successor.

It's how things work these days, and it's actually a testament to all the effort that Ryan and others like her put into building the sport. If women's basketball didn't matter to a large enough group of people, no one would care how many games the Cavaliers won or what they did in March.

But they do care, and Ryan decided that she was "not living up to her standards" as she said in a statement released by UVa on Saturday. This season, the Cavs are 16-15 and are awaiting potential inclusion in the WNIT, which could be Ryan's final time to coach. Then she will explore her options.

"In the immediate future I will remain in Charlottesville and choose an area of the University that fits my skills," Ryan said in the statement. "The Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center is of particular interest to me, but I have not settled on anything yet.

"I have loved every minute of my career as the women's head basketball coach at UVa. I have been blessed to work in a nurturing environment with exceptional young women, truly dedicated coaches and talented administrators and colleagues."

The blessing went both ways, though, for all who came into contact with Ryan.

Boucek laughed when recalling the story of how Ryan so stringently followed NCAA guidelines that -- in the days before cell phones -- if players happened to use a phone in the basketball offices, they had pay for the call.

"At the time, you're a kid and you think, 'This is ridiculous,'" Boucek said. "But her integrity is unwavering. And now, that's the thing I respect most about her. There were things I didn't understand then, but they were so important to my development.

"I'm very grateful to her. She cared more about what was best for us than whether we 'liked' her in those moments when she had to teach us or discipline us. That's what a good parent would do, and that's how she was. It was the truest sign of love: That she would always do what would really help us."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.