Dave Rubio is entering his 30th season with Arizona volleyball and knows his days are numbered. When he strolls the McKale Center hallways, he can’t help but wonder what life after coaching will entail.
“I just feel pretty privileged to be able to do what I do and do it for a few more years, hopefully, but it’s been a great run so far,” he said. “I was fortunate to land in the right spots and I used to just love coaching and do it for free. And so now I think back about how I’ve been able to make a career out of something that I love.”
Rubio, 62, was hired by Arizona in 1991 after a winless season. Since then, he has guided the Wildcats to 14 20-win seasons, 20 NCAA Tournaments, eight Sweet Sixteens, four Elite Eights and the 2001 Final Four.
Rubio has worked under six different athletic directors and became Arizona’s longest-tenured head coach this summer when Mike Candrea retired from the softball program.
The time has flown by.
“I think for all of us who’ve been through this before, you know with Mike Candrea, Lute (Olson) and people who stayed in one place for a long of time, it just kind of catches up to you,” Rubio said. “You just all of a sudden wake up one morning and it’s like, ‘wow, it’s 30 years.”’
Rubio said his players have kept him going. Each roster brings a new challenge.
“It takes a different formula, a different approach every year, that’s why it never gets old,” he said. “So even though you’re coaching the same sport and the same skills, how to connect with the players, how to get the most out of them, how to try to get them to a point where they can become the player, the person they want to be...that is the part that I really like. I think most coaches will tell you that it’s become more difficult now more than ever to do our job, just with all the different amount of paperwork, scrutiny, the social media that goes with it, the parental involvement that goes with it. But at the end of the day you still love what you do, and I look forward to being in the gym every day with the players.”
The Wildcats haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2018 but Rubio said the last two seasons have been “really special” anyway because of how coachable his players were.
A younger Rubio would have scoffed at that sentiment. Winning used to be so important to him that he often lost sight of the big picture.
“There’s a saying that the youth is wasted on the young,” Rubio said. “I think that when you’re sitting where I’m sitting and anybody that’s sitting where I am, that you look back at how you coach and how you were as a person in your younger years, and there’s a lot of things that I think I would like to change. ... This society was totally different in terms of what’s acceptable and not acceptable, but I wish I was a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more empathetic back in those days.”
So much so that Rubio recently apologized to some of his former players when they were celebrating his 30th year of coaching on Zoom.
“They were telling us how much he’s softened up and how easy we have it because he’s soft now,” said junior libero Kamaile Hiapo. “He’s still tough, but I think he knows when to put on pressure.”
Hiapo and sophomore setter Emery Herman said Rubio’s communication skills are why they love playing for him.
“He’s very knowledgeable, he knows what he talks about,” Hiapo said. “That’s one thing I knew like five, six years ago when he was recruiting me. I trust him, he’s very reliable and ... he’s done a lot better with finding a way to talk to each girl individually.”
Rubio once envisioned himself retiring at age 60. Now he’s planning on coaching until at least 2023 when his contract expires. Then he’ll re-evaluate.
“We’ll see if they want me back,” he quipped. “But I love this place and I feel fortunate. I have an unbelievable staff and it’s made things a lot easier for me, so it’s great. ... My time is coming to an end, but I want to enjoy every minute of it.”