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Arizona volleyball: On Rita Stubbs’ journey to associate head coach and why she’s spearheading Pac-12’s new Diversity Mentorship Program

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Like most people, newly promoted associate head coach Charita “Rita” Stubbs wasn’t always the person she is today. She came to Arizona volleyball as a player and, in her words, an “angry Black woman” in 1990.

After four years as a player and 17 years on Dave Rubio’s staff, she’s now looking for ways to help women like her get their start in coaching by spearheading the Pac-12’s new Diversity Mentorship Program.

It started on an off chance. Stubbs was talking to a group of women in an investment group, all of whom are involved in volleyball. They started talking about the dearth of women of color who were head volleyball coaches. She said that they tried to think of women doing the job in NCAA volleyball but were coming up with very few.

Stubbs told the group that as a member of the recent search committee at Arizona that ended with the hiring of Matt Dyck as an assistant coach, one of the problems she noticed was that few women even applied. Of those who did apply, even fewer were qualified.

Stubbs shared the qualifications that Rubio was looking for. Those included being able to hit balls and work with the stats programs used in NCAA volleyball. But how were they to get that experience?

The answer was obvious: mentorship. So, Stubbs set about creating a program to provide that.

“I text Dave, Kevin (Hambly), Mike (Sealy), and Brad (Keller), so USC, Stanford, and UCLA, and Dave, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sign you guys up with a mentee, just so you know. You don’t get to ask questions.’ And so they were like, ‘Okay.’ So, immediately I match four women up.”

Hambly then suggested they take it beyond the four schools. He and Stubbs worked to get 10 of the 12 Pac-12 coaches on board as mentors in one night. They wanted it to be more than just a conference initiative, though.

“I’m really proud of being attached to this,” Rubio said. “And proud of my colleagues within the conference about promoting young mentorship for minority coaches. And so far we’ve raised almost $12,000 amongst the coaches with the idea of approaching some Pac-12 partners, the Pac-12 is partnered with us, and so we’re excited to have them part of this as well.”

Rubio was especially proud of how involved Stubbs was in getting the program off the ground. It wasn’t the first time she has tried to get these opportunities for others.

The Big 12 had been involved in a diversity grant with the AVCA. Stubbs and two of the other women in her investment group had been involved in getting that program off the ground several years ago, but there were funding and administrative issues that basically allowed it to die. The three of them decided that it was time to take that program back, at least for the Pac-12, and breathe life into it again.

They have brought the Senior Woman Administrators from the Pac-12 schools on board. Each school’s SWA has agreed to teach a session with one teaching the session each month of the year. Stubbs’ group sets the curriculum, then each SWA will be allowed to teach it as she sees fit.

“It goes beyond coaching,” Stubbs said. “It goes in terms of being administrators. We can’t be administrators. We don’t know what it’s like.”

Getting to the point where she was ready to take on these kinds of leadership roles was a journey. Stubbs lost her father to murder at the age of 10. She said that her mother, who was a heavy drug user until her death two years ago, didn’t want to talk about his death.

“When I found out, she was like, ‘Go upstairs,’” Stubbs said. “So, there was never a conversation or that process.”

She might have wanted people to know who she was, but she had difficulty navigating those relationships. When Stubbs arrived in Tucson as Charita Johnson, she wouldn’t let others in.

“When I came to college, I was just an angry Black woman,” Stubbs said. “I had a nose ring, I didn’t comb my hair on purpose. You got close to me, I would lash out. I was just angry, but I was angry and didn’t know I was angry. But the more you tried to get to know me, the more I will push you away and it got old really fast.”

She found her own mentor in Rubio. Both Rubio and Stubbs will admit that he doesn’t always appear to be the most empathetic person, but he knew what his middle blocker needed and he has stood by her throughout her coaching career.

She got her start in coaching as an assistant to Rubio, eventually becoming the associate head coach in her first stint at Arizona. That led to a position as head coach at North Carolina State. When things went sideways there, she spent some time on the prep and club coaching circuits before Rubio brought her back to his staff.

“He saved me twice,” Stubbs said. “Because he was the one as a player he told me I was a bad person. Yes, he said it in those words, he really did. Get yourself together. You need to tell your teammates your story. I didn’t, but he told me I needed to. So I feel like he saved me then. And he saved me when he brought me back from North Carolina. And so I owe a lot to him. And he’s just done so many things that he would not want me to say.”

Rubio didn’t just stand by her professionally, but reached out when she needed help in her personal life. One story that Stubbs was willing to share was about his help after she and her husband adopted their daughter Bethaina from Haiti. It was Rubio who helped with lawyers to get citizenship and Social Security issues sorted out.

Now in her late 40s, Stubbs is trying to give back both to the volleyball community and the wider world. When protests about police accountability and racial justice erupted around the country earlier this year, she was one of the Arizona coaches who spoke out.

She wanted to be available to her players if they had questions or thoughts. She just didn’t want to be the one telling them what to think. In her view, the inability to listen is limiting the hopes of change.

“The struggle is because of poor communication,” Stubbs said. “I think that we don’t listen to hear, we just listen to talk. And hopefully someone jumps on the bandwagon with whatever it is that we’re seeing. And I don’t think that we process what we’re saying enough to know who we’re impacting.”

Her path has allowed her some insight into what both sides of the debate are talking about, but those she’s trying to speak to don’t always realize that.

“I can see, honestly, from both sides,” she said. “Growing up in the inner city, I get it completely. I understand the things that are lacking and things that aren’t needed. And now that I’m in a better place, whatever that really means in life, I can see from the perspective of individuals that have no clue that things were going on. I’m not going to fault anyone on either side for that. But if we were to speak, if we were to walk into every situation to say, I started this off and I’m a Black woman from the inner city with two children, married 16 years. I give you just my resume of who I am, then when I speak, you will walk away with some perspective of it. But if I just say right now that I’m associate head coach here at the U of A, you’ll bypass my past and know that when I speak, I’m speaking from a different place. So I think that as I listen to everything that’s going on, and I am the person that will listen to both sides completely to formulate my opinions, because I’m raising children that have to navigate through life, being the color that they are, as well as try to achieve what others deemed to be a better life.”

Does she want to be the person who has to speak on these issues? Well, that’s changed over the years, too.

“It depends on who you’re talking to,” Stubbs said. “Rita of old? Leave me alone, I’m tired of, you know, I can’t be the spokesperson for every Black woman walking around. But if you talked to Rita now, it is necessary because I want to be the person where you can ask the questions that you may really want to know the answer to.”

Stubbs cites three major events in her life that helped her get to the point where she could take that on. The first was early on, not long after she finished her degree at Arizona and went to play professional volleyball in France. Her brother gave her a Bible. She said it took her months before she opened it, and she was initially just happy to see that he had slipped $200 in the front of it.

Then, she read it.

The next was 16 years ago when she married her husband, Melvin. She remembers crying as she walked down the aisle. She was sure people were wondering if she really wanted to marry this man, but it didn’t have anything to do with that.

“My uncle flew in from Qatar,” she recalls. “He was in the military and he flew in. He said, ‘Rita, why are you crying?’ I said, ‘I just want my dad.’ Here I am, this 36-year-old woman bawling like I’m 10 years old about my dad.”

Her final epiphany came when her mom died two years ago, bringing things full circle. Stubbs had asked her mom to write her a letter answering all those questions she had about her dad and her childhood. She would read it after her mom passed.

“I’m not doing that shit,” she told Stubbs.

But she did. When the elder woman passed away, she left four journals for her daughter. Her questions finally answered.

“I’m like, okay, there’s more to life, you can’t be angry, you got to be open, you got to share, you have to give your testimony.”