The University of Virginia is celebrating its 37th season of women's basketball competition. It all started in 1973, when Barbara Kelly became the Cavaliers' first women's basketball coach.
"Women's intercollegiate programs in any sport, at any of the ACC schools, did not begin to develop until the 1970s," Kelly explained. "Undergraduate women were not admitted to the University until 1970. In the fall 1971, I was hired to develop an athletic program and proceeded to form three club sport teams that competed only within the state. In 1973, those three sports (field hockey, basketball and tennis) were brought into the mainstream of intercollegiate athletics."
Kelly guided UVa through its first two winning seasons before Dan Bonner took over for the 1976 season. Bonner also coached the 'Hoos for just two seasons, finishing at 32-20.
"I was also the Director of Women's Sports at the time, and was unable to find anyone that wanted to coach a women's team. So, I appointed myself until I could find someone," Kelly said. "Remember that we had little money to offer so it was quite difficult to attract someone. Coaching was taking too much of my administrative time, and I was more interested in developing athletic programs at UVa. I appointed Dan Bonner, a former UVa player. He was a graduate student and a part-time academic advisor in athletics. Fortunately, he agreed to coach until I could hire a full-time coach."
Upon getting a second full-time position for women's intercollegiate sports, Virginia hoops history would move to the forefront with the hiring of its third head coach: Debbie Ryan. Fresh out of graduate school, the 23-year old assistant basketball and field hockey coach took over the reigns at UVa to build upon the foundation set by Kelly and Bonner.
"In 1977, I hired Debbie Ryan to continue our efforts in developing a first-class intercollegiate program," Kelly said. "Although she was fresh out of graduate school, Debbie had all the necessary intangible tools of dedication, intensity, persistence and loyalty needed to build an exciting and successful basketball program. We are so proud of her accomplishments."
On Nov. 28, 1977, Ryan claimed her first victory at the helm of the Virginia program with a 54-48 win over Virginia Union at University Hall. Since that night, Ryan has guided the Cavaliers to 28 winning seasons, 11 ACC regular-season titles, three ACC Tournament championships, and 21 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Shortly after Ryan began as UVa's head coach, the ACC initiated its first-ever women's basketball tournament. Behind the driving force of former coach and UVa administrator Barbara Kelly, the ACC tourney began as the nation's first postseason Conference tournament for women's basketball. In 2005-06, the ACC Tournament celebrated its 25th anniversary.