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Brooks: It's Teacher vs. Pupil (And A Bit More)

Jan 1, 2010

Game Notes

BOULDER - She would like to tuck this one into the "just another game" file, but for a couple of fairly large reasons it simply won't fit.

Start with the obvious: Her Colorado women's basketball team has launched its best home start (8-0) in seven seasons and is 9-2 overall.

But a signature victory, a "give-us-some-love" statement win, is lacking. No. 23 Virginia's visit to the Coors Events Center on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m., FSN Rocky Mountain) offers a chance to remedy that.

Now for the not-so-obvious (unless you've kept a copy of Kathy McConnell-Miller's resume handy): She's a UVA alum, a pretty fair former point guard for Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan, whose staying power in women's hoops is nearly unrivaled.

In her 33rd season at UVA, Ryan is an icon in her business, but she's much more than that to McConnell-Miller. She's a mentor, role model, standard-setter and, maybe above all, a close friend.

When Ryan and the Cavaliers arrive in Boulder, Ryan will spend part of New Year's Day at McConnell-Miller's home, visiting with her former player's family. They still spend as much time together as possible when their paths cross on recruiting trips.  They text. They talk on the phone.

McConnell-Miller reveres her former coach as a "pioneer and a tireless worker" who has remained "extremely passionate about her profession, and I love that about her. Every day she's tried to raise expectations and the level of play of her players. If you're not successful at Virginia under her, you just don't want to be. She will make sure it happens for you."

Something else about Ryan struck a chord with an unsuspecting McConnell-Miller when she arrived in Charlottesville from Pittsburgh in 1986. McConnell-Miller was expecting a 24-7, slow-drip dose of hoops from her new college coach.

"I thought I was this basketball player . . . and that was what I was there to do," she recalled.

Instead, Ryan quickly showed she "was all about the overall balance of her players. That was something I never expected at that time in my life . . . it was one big thing I took from her and realized that's an important part of life.

"She's been extremely instrumental in the fact I'm coaching today. She cares about every aspect of her players' lives . . . she has the expectation that you excel academically, athletically and socially - all those areas. You find a way, you commit yourself.

"I grew up in a basketball family and thought that (playing, coaching) was something that I would always want to do. But she showed me a different side of the profession."

What Ryan has shown to those who didn't play for her is the ability to win - and keep on winning. She has recorded milestones for wins - the most recent being 700 - and will bring a 708-301 career record to Saturday's game.

After she reached win No. 500 on Feb. 21, 1999, Ryan ordered enough small basketballs to send to her former players.

"She autographed them all and thanked us for playing a part in her reaching 500," McConnell-Miller recalled. "It was a classy thing to do; I wouldn't have expected anything less.

"She's a great lady, an amazing woman . . . it's just unheard of that somebody stays at a place 32 years and continues to get better. It just doesn't happen anymore."

In her every career move, McConnell-Miller has consulted Ryan, seeking advice on everything from what it takes to be an effective assistant coach to how she should progress as a head coach.

McConnell-Miller didn't ask Ryan what style of home she and her family should move into when they arrived in Boulder five years ago from Tulsa. But many years earlier, as a UVA player, McConnell-Miller had her eyes opened regarding the perks of her future profession and housing options.

"The first time I walked into her house - and you have to remember I came from Pittsburgh, a three-bedroom house with eight kids, our mom and dad - it felt like a castle to me," McConnell-Miller recalled.

"I thought, 'You can coach and live in a house this big?'"

Yes, you can - if you can coach like Debbie Ryan.

Her current UVA team (9-3) features Monica Wright, a senior guard who is 78 points shy of breaking Dawn Staley's school career scoring record (2,135). McConnell-Miller projects Wright as a first-round WNBA draft choice.

In a late-November game last season that the Buffs remember for mostly bad reasons, Wright contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a blocked shot. UVA embarrassed visiting CU, 77-43.

Add one more reason why Saturday's rematch won't fit in the "just another game" file. Be certain that Kathy McConnell-Miller is aware of all of them.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU