Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio is nearing his 63rd birthday and the final year of his current contract, but he’s still thinking about the future of his program—even when that future no longer includes him. Hiring former Pac-10 Setter of the Year Lauren Plum as his new assistant coach is part of that process.
“With my tenure here coming up within the next couple of years, I think it was a perfect opportunity for someone like her to come in and learn and see how the program operates,” Rubio said. “And then she and (associate head coach) Rita (Stubbs) can really, once I step down, take over and hit the ground running.”
Getting a younger coach was also about bringing the program into the 21st century according to Rubio. It’s part of a larger process, like hiring a social media consultant to help the coaches and forcing himself to start posting on Instagram.
The hire has gone over well in the volleyball world, too.
“Everybody in the coaching field knows Lauren simply because of the way that she played and the fact of what she did at Oregon, and then professionally, and so it gives us really good notoriety,” Rubio said. “In fact, when we hired her I got a lot of phone calls saying, ‘Man, you really knocked it out of the park hiring Lauren.’”
It wasn’t always an obvious thing, though.
“I don’t think I was even on his radar at first,” Plum said.
Rubio confirmed that. Plum is a young coach. She just finished her professional playing career two years ago and went to work at Villanova. Was she ready to move into a role at a Pac-12 school?
Besides, Rubio is used to hiring someone with ties to the Arizona program. There were no obvious candidates this time around, though, and he wanted to get more women into his interview pool. When some former Arizona players vouched for Plum, he decided she should be in the pool. He figured out quickly that he made the right decision by including her.
“I knew Lauren, of course, just as a player,” Rubio said. “Certainly respected her as somebody I played against, but Madi Kingdon, she texted me immediately and said, ‘You need to consider Lauren.' Cursty Jackson said the same thing. A lot of people reached out to us about Lauren, and initially, I just felt like she was so new to coaching. She had been at Villanova but was not there for very long during the COVID spell. But as soon as we interviewed her on Zoom, I said, ‘Lauren’s got something special. She’s got something that’s a little different than anybody else that we’ve interviewed.’”
Rubio saw in Plum a lot of the same characteristics that Adia Barnes has brought to women’s basketball. It’s easy to see why. Plum is open and outgoing. Talking to her is like talking to a longtime friend. She’s personable and warm. She also has experience as a player that will resonate with college athletes. And she brings something to the culture that Rubio would like to see his players adopt.
At Oregon, Plum led her team to the national title game. How did the Ducks do it?
“Not talent,” Plum said. “I think I was technically the highest-rated recruit at like 75 out of the Prep 150. No one else was on that. So, we fit into a system that worked really well. And our coach, Jim Moore, was amazing at seeing those blue-collar kids that were just grinding every day to get a little bit better. Still athletic, but fit all the pieces into a system. Really high IQ kids. And we just played fast and beat a lot of people side-to-side. People couldn’t stop us. But I think that was when everything came together and we had such a hardworking team. Without any of the coaches telling us, at least two-thirds of the team was in at the end of the day. Practice in the morning, classes, at least two-thirds came back in to do something, get better at something.”
That mindset is something that Rubio wants Arizona players to have. He said that it has not been the Wildcats’ culture for players to devote themselves to working on their own, although they work hard during practice. He’s so comfortable with what Plum brings to the table that he’s even willing to start letting go of training the setters.
As a former setter, Rubio has long led the training for that position group. He said that he will still have input, but he's ready for Plum to take on the role as the leader of that group. He will move to working with the pins and the liberos.
“The thing about Dave is he’s been here so long, he knows how to do everything inside and out,” Plum said. “And we’ve had so many great conversations and he can do everything at such a professional level. So now it’s just a matter of me showing myself that, hey, you can trust me with this position. This is how I would do it. And if he’s like, ‘I want you to do like that.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s adjust, and you tell me what you want.’ And you know we can make that happen because it’s really important that I think we’re all coaching in the same direction and he’s been doing it for a long time.”
Plum brings a lifetime of competitiveness to her new role as coach. She comes from a family of athletes. Her younger sister Kelsey was a star basketball player at Washington and now plays for the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA. All of the Plums were Division I athletes. That desire to compete was the most difficult thing for her to give up as she moved to coaching.
“Mentally, I really feel like I could play forever,” Plum said. “I love it. I love competition. But you know it comes to a point overseas and you’re like, ‘I’m making decent money, but not enough to set myself up for life.’ I’m not saying you have a 401k and all these things. I majored in business and I understand I want to live a decent lifestyle.”
She held out hoping to fulfill her dream of making the Olympic team, but injuries piled up. Then came the pandemic and contracts weren’t as good overseas anymore as companies and municipal governments had less to spare for sports sponsorships.
Still, she likes to work in the gym. When the players did team-building exercises that included gymnastics, Rubio said Plum was out there doing handsprings and cartwheels. It impressed everyone.
“I’m in the gym training with them and doing all those things,” Plum said. “I want them to see that I work my butt off, too, so that when I ask more of someone, when I ask more of you it’s not like, ‘Well, what do you know when you’re just washed up?’ I never want to get to that point because I think people nowadays, especially younger kids, if they see someone do it, they’re automatically like, ‘Okay, I respect you,’ whereas you tell someone I did this, this and this, no one cares.”
Joining other women helping female college athletes has made the transition from player to coach easier. Stubbs was a big reason Plum felt like Arizona was a good fit.
“I love volleyball so much, and there’s so many things I wish I would have done,” Plum said. “And I wish someone would have helped me and told me and led me on this path because my path was like, I’m so stubborn. I just want to have someone I would have trusted, especially a woman... And that’s why I love Rita so much. I mean, I came here and I saw how amazing she was with the players as a person, and I’m like, ‘That’s someone I want to work with.’ Because that’s exactly who I aligned my values (with). My values aligned with her first.”
Finding the middle
Rubio went into the offseason hoping to find an experienced middle blocker in the portal. After last season, Merle Weidt transferred to Denver because Arizona didn’t have her graduate degree program. Senior Zyonna Fellows wasn’t sure she wanted to play her extra COVID-19 year granted by the NCAA. While Arizona has one middle in mind from outside the program, it may end up that Fellows is that experienced middle who comes in next season.
Fellows said at senior day that her parents were trying to convince her to play one more year. She was not sure at that time what she wanted to do, but Arizona is “in conversations” with her, Rubio said.
“That would really, for us, give the young players another year to develop,” he said.
One of those young middles, Jennifer Wroblicky, is still not cleared to play. Wroblicky was hurt early last August and has not taken the court yet for Arizona.
Back on the recruiting trail
The coaches will finally get to go back out recruiting on Feb. 18. The quiet period has been in place since the end of the season in December. Evaluating talent is something Plum is looking forward to, but she still has some baggage from her own days as a recruit.
“(Arizona) didn’t want me,” Plum laughed. “I was too undersized. I joke with them all the time. So it’s really hard for me now that I’m recruiting and sometimes I’ll see a kid and my first thought was like, ‘Ah, they’re a little too undersized.’ Then it triggers me, because everyone told me I was too undersized.”