Pat Summitt humbled Debbie Ryan in their first encounter. Nine years later, Ryan prevailed to reach the Final Four. The very next season, Summitt denied Ryan in an overtime national championship game.
But even as their teams, the Tennessee Lady Vols and Virginia Cavaliers, collided in postseason seven times in 11 years, these two Women's Basketball Hall of Fame coaches became fast friends. Never was that bond more poignant than this winter.
"We talked about some pretty serious things," Ryan said Wednesday of Summitt's exit from coaching after 38 years, eight national titles and a record 1,098 victories.
They spoke of Summitt's 2011 diagnosis with early onset dementia-Alzheimer's type. They spoke of Ryan's 2000 diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and of the late Kay Yow, the former North Carolina State coach who battled breast cancer so valiantly while on the job.
But there was humor as Summitt joked about her fading memory.
"I knew what Pat was experiencing," Ryan said. "I knew what was on her heart. I knew how much she wanted to stay connected. But I knew she was probably contemplating, not that we talked about it, what the next step was. …
"It's a tough position to be in. It's very difficult job when you're completely healthy. It's 24/7, it's 9,000 people breathing down your neck when you lose or when you don't win by as many points as they want you to. And the more stress that's involved, the harder it is to heal.
"I knew she was going through a lot, but at the same time, I knew how much she loved the University of Tennessee and loved that basketball program and loved those kids and loved that staff. This took a lot for her to step into a new role, which I think was admirable and courageous."
Summitt's new role is head coach emeritus, and she will continue as an Alzheimer's advocate through the Pat Summitt Foundation. Similarly, since her 2011 departure from coaching after 34 seasons at Virginia, Ryan has worked in the development office of the university's cancer center.
Ryan is lucky. She gave herself six months to live after her diagnosis with a most vicious cancer. But here she is nearly 12 years later, cancer-free and healthy.
Ryan spent the summer with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, where former Virginia guard Jenny Boucek is an assistant coach. She served as an assistant coach for the United States' Pan American Games team and offered counsel to any college coach who asked.
"I grew up in the ACC … listening to all those men's coaches, from Norm Sloan to Dean Smith to Jim Valvano," Ryan said, "because my office backed up to the men's visiting locker room. So we just took the tiles out of the ceiling and listened. And (Virginia men's coach) Terry Holland was so open. … I couldn't have had better mentors. …
"It's been a really good year for me. I got to see things from a different perspective."
No perspective was as rewarding as her trip to Knoxville. There she reunited with not only Summitt but also Dawn Staley, the most decorated player in Virginia history and the star of Ryan's three consecutive Final Four teams in the early 1990s.
Staley is South Carolina's head coach, and her Gamecocks defeated Tennessee during Ryan's visit.
"I couldn't have been prouder of Dawn," Ryan said. "But that was a tough spot. I was in a pickle."
Ryan laughed Wednesday when she recalled her first game against Tennessee, an 81-54 pasting in the 1981 Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament. She was 2-13 against Summitt, winning the 1990 NCAA East Regional final in Norfolk, losing the 1991 national title game in overtime.
Summitt averaged a staggering 28.9 wins during her 38 seasons, all at Tennessee, and each of her four-year players graduated.
"She never, ever lowered her standards in any way," Ryan said. "She was always someone who had the most impeccable integrity. Just her presence, her overwhelming presence will be missed by our game."
Summitt and Ryan are both 59. Ryan was 24 when she took over at Virginia, Summitt 22 when she inherited the Tennessee job. So they grew up together.
"My reaction is one of obvious sadness," Ryan said. "It's the end of an era for a very, very, very important person in our game, and someone who acted as a role model even though we (are) the same age. …
"Pat was always going to do what was best for the Lady Vols. So this doesn't surprise me at all."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP