Former Virginia women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan arrived on Grounds in 1975 as a graduate assistant to then-head coach Dan Bonner.
Ryan’s goal was to glean something from every coach who crossed her path, but many of the lessons that most impacted her career were learned from a closet in her office in University Hall.
The visiting locker room backed up to Ryan’s office. Once a couple ceiling tiles were removed, she would pull a chair into the closet and listened to pregame, halftime and postgame speeches from iconic ACC coaches Dean Smith and Lefty Driessell.
“You could hear everything because everyone is always yelling,” said Ryan, adding that the best acoustics were actually next door in former men’s soccer coach Bruce Arenas’ office. “So many great coaches passed through that building, so many great players. It will always be special to me.”
Ryan hails from a small town in New Jersey and played point guard at Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. When she first laid eyes upon U-Hall, she remembers thinking it was the Taj Mahal.
“I had never seen anything like it. I grew up there and I kind of got my wings in U-Hall,” Ryan said. “There are just so many great memories of all the games and people and learning so much from all the great ACC coaches that passed through there.”
Saturday’s implosion of the building that was once the hub of Virginia athletics won’t be easy for Ryan. She and men’s basketball legend Ralph Sampson have been helping each other cope for weeks. They plan to get together on Friday to celebrate the old building, and they want to watch it come down together.
“It’s hard to know a building like that is so expendable,” Ryan said. “I know Ralph is very emotional about it.”
Ryan has an endless catalog of U-Hall memories, from an Elite Eight win over Vanderbilt in 1992 to the arena’s inaugural free hot dog night, which officially set the attendance record at 11,174 — though she insists the actual number was north of 15,000.
Her accommodations were less than ideal. Ryan’s office didn’t have a window, and it was in a multipurpose practice room known as “The Cage.” The football team held team dinners outside her office, and for much of her time in U-Hall, the women’s team didn’t have an actual locker room. They had to share space with other teams, and players would bring in potted plants to hide the unsightly urinals in the back of the room.
There wasn’t much in the way of amenities when Bonner arrived in 1971 as a player on the men’s basketball team, either.
“There was a concrete floor, lockers on two walls, sort of like lockers at the YMCA, and benches running the length of the floor,” he said. “There were no frills at all.”
Bonner remembers the Russian circus taking over U-Hall in the ’70s and a long litany of high school state playoffs games that were played in the building.
“It wasn’t always full, but there was always excitement,” said Bonner. “It was a place where young people grew into adults and where everyone made lasting memories.”
Whatever frills it lacked, Ryan said U-Hall was always a place where she felt like she belonged.
“It always felt like home to me. It’s where I had to learn when to fight a battle and when to back off,” Ryan said. “I never wanted to leave it, but of course, moving over to JPJ was an easy transition.”
John Paul Jones Arena opened in 2006 across the street from U-Hall. Ryan’s new office had plenty of windows, and she described it as “almost as big as U-Hall.” She could walk downstairs to a practice court just for the women’s team, and she never had to worry about a field hockey or tennis player walking into the locker room in the middle of a halftime speech.
Still, she said, there’s something to be said about the character of the old building and the relationships it fostered.
“You make those emotional connections to things and it’s hard to let them go,” Ryan said. “When it’s gone, it’ll be like all those memories never happened, but we know they happened and we hang onto them.”
With U-Hall as her base of operations, Ryan led Virginia to a national title appearance, three Final Fours and 11 regular season ACC titles. The trophy cases have long since been removed and what was her office is now a pile of rubble, but for Ryan, U-Hall will always be home.
“Things come and go, but we’ll always have the memories,” Ryan said.