Next year will be an awfully strange one for the women's basketball team: the first since approximately the Civil War in which Debbie Ryan wasn't somehow involved. The program is not that old, and when Ryan began her playing career it didn't even exist, but she was its head coach for all but four years of its existence and arrived here even before then. Debbie Ryan was the program. Almost literally.
Unfortunately she was the program for probably too long in the eyes of many fans. Disclaimer before I go further: I don't follow women's basketball, and this post isn't even about women's basketball as you'll eventually see. I'm sure Joanne Boyle is a wonderful lady, and if she's in the mold of these other coaches Craig Littlepage has hired (O'Connor, Bennett, etc.) then she'll have the fanbase wrapped around her finger in no time. But she's following a legend, made easier by the undeniable fact that a lot of people felt the legend stuck around for too long.
Now, me, I tend to be a defender of the present coach, in all situations, for much longer than most people. I thought Dave Leitao should have been given another year. It took until William & Mary for me to join the Groh Must Go bandwagon, by which time it wasn't so much a bandwagon as a CSX freight train. Hell, I still think Rich Rodriguez shouldn't have been fired at Michigan, and I liked Wayne Fontes as the Lions' head coach a lot longer than the media did. I'm a little insane like that, but I don't believe in causing instability unless there's no other choice. If I were a women's basketball fan, I'd probably have been campaigning for Debbie Ryan to determine the time and terms of her departure; I'm not a follower of the sport, and I still cringed at the vitriol that a lot of people had for her.
That said, if you have semi-lofty goals for the UVA women's basketball program it was pretty evident she had become largely ineffective as a coach. UVA's failure to have any success at all in the NCAA tournament - especially an upset loss to 12-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay in what would be Ryan's final tourney appearance (and this is a sport and tournament where chalk reigns supreme) - was Exhibits A through P. Having a super-superstar like Monica Wright during that lackluster performance made it worse. Nobody knows exactly when Ryan hit the downslope, but it had to have been a while ago because in my time as a Virginia fan I've really only ever thought of her as an embattled legend, not simply a legend. Quite a while ago.
Ryan's not alone; most coaching legends hang on for a little longer than they "should." "Should" is in quotes because coaching legends do deserve the ability to leave on their terms; it might make sense from a cold-logic standpoint to callously fire a coach when it appears he's not finished with his usefulness, but it's such an awful thing to do that AD's never do it. It makes me wonder this: Is Dom Starsia getting to that point? A lot of legends get there. Bobby Bowden sure as hell did. Starsia clearly qualifies as a legend: barring a finish that would depress the pants off of every Cavalier lax fan, he should finish this season as the all-time winningest lacrosse coach in Division I history. Only three more wins to get there.
It seems premature to ask that, and a little bit assholeish. I've never seen it suggested that Dom should be let go. In each of the last couple years UVA has found itself on the top of the lacrosse rankings; it didn't translate into a national championship, but still.
Even so: under Starsia, UVA lacrosse had gotten to the point where it could reasonably expect a national championship every four years or so. In fact, it was almost like clockwork: 1999, 2003, 2006. 2010 would have continued the pattern nicely, but it didn't happen. The Huguely incident may have had something to do with it, or it may not. That may be representative of a pattern of undisciplined behavior, or it may not. But, since the 2006 championship, there've been two seasons now that didn't live up to expectations at all: 2007, and this one, where it'd be a stretch to expect another national title for reasons other than the randomness of a 16-team tournament where the teams are so evenly matched. It'd be one thing if the defense were the main issue, but the offense is what's been disappointing in the big games.
Really, I should be slapped for this, because I like for numbers to back up what I'm saying, and they don't. Offense disappointing? The rest of the country should be so lucky, since UVA tops the nation in scoring average. We're 8-3 and smack in the middle of the hunt for the national title. Sometimes in sports, though, you just have to go with how things feel. Your gut, a hunch, whatever. Sports is a little bit Bill James and a little bit Malcolm Gladwell and Blink. And right now in UVA lacrosse, things feel off. Maybe it's the multiple suspensions, maybe it's the brain-damaged decisions from the UNC game, or maybe the damn losses are affecting my spoiled, entitled head. It's enough for now to make me wonder if we aren't just now entering the backslide of Dom Starsia's career.
If so, we probably won't really know it for a little while. Even if I'm right, it doesn't mean it's time for him to go right now. Own terms and all that, but also, whatever happens in the backslide of Dom Starsia's career isn't necessarily worse than what might happen under a new regime. And you won't see me demanding Starsia's ouster. He's done enough to deserve better. I may, at some point in the future, express hope that he resigns in a timely fashion, but Littlepage shouldn't and won't ever fire the guy. I may be wrong, and Starsia might just lead his team to a national championship this year and everything will be great again, and wouldn't that teach me a lesson. When legends get to the end, it just sort of fades off, you're never quite sure exactly when it started, and nothing but new blood can rejuvenate things. I can't help but suspect that the fade is beginning.