Arizona’s new head volleyball coach Charita “Rita” Stubbs has never shied away from talking about her time as head coach of North Carolina State when her team went 22-111. She draws on that time as she heads into her second chance to lead a program, this time doing it at her alma mater as she takes over for retired head coach Dave Rubio.
“Who wouldn’t want to be the coach at their alma mater, right?” Stubbs said. “I started this journey of writing down what I wanted April 22, 2020 that said, ‘Journey to head coach.’ And so, it was always my goal to—once I decided I wanted to be a coach—that I wanted to be able to coach here. I wanted to be able to give back. I bleed red and blue. Everything about me as a competitor and everyone who’s around me is going to think the same way.”
In the past, Stubbs has said that one thing she learned at NC State was that everyone hates the head coach. As an assistant coach, she has been beloved. She takes some of the responsibility for the way people perceived her at that time, though.
“That was one of the hardest transitions for me because I think I’m likeable,” Stubbs said. “People want to be around me. When I became a head coach, they didn’t relate to me that way. But I don’t think I presented myself as myself. Last time I had that experience, I was honestly trying to be like Dave. You know, ‘This is the way it needs to be.’ And it wasn’t me, so I didn’t know who I was. And…I’d say I was probably too prideful, and I didn’t ask for help. So now I’m always upfront, honest. I believe in being vulnerable with the players.”
It’s obvious that people do like being around her. The current players have always been quick to name her when asked who helps them both on the court and off. Even players who have transferred from Arizona were thrilled with the announcement, as was obvious by the comments left on Instagram by former outside hitter and opposite Katie Smoot, who finished her career at California.
“WE LOVEEEE RITA” and “THE BESTEST TO DO IT,” Smoot posted in two different comments on Arizona volleyball’s announcement of the hire.
Besides, Stubbs has overcome far more difficult things in her life than a losing record in her first head coaching position. She went on not just to survive but to thrive as the associate head coach of the Wildcats, a wife, and a mother of two.
Being vulnerable with others was something that Rubio tried to teach her when she was still a player in the early 1990s. At the time, she said she was just angry.
“My dad was murdered when I was 10,” Stubbs said. “Three days after my birthday, three days before his birthday. My mom was a drug user her entire life. She’s now deceased. I found out that she was actually the person behind having my dad murdered. So, I kind of shared the story with [Rubio]. He was like, ‘Rita, you gotta tell your teammates. You’ve got to let them know that you’re always hurting. That’s why you’re so angry. That’s why you’re this way.’ I was like, ‘I’m not telling them anything.’ So, he would allow me to talk to him about those things, so that I could get out because it’s not healthy.”
The relationship that has grown over the past 30 years has become one that Rubio calls “family.” In Stubbs’ view, her coach saved her repeatedly. First, it was during those days as a player, then when he convinced her to become a coach, and finally when he brought her back from North Carolina after things didn’t go well for her at NC State.
She’s living a dream that she has had not just for herself but other women of color in volleyball. She helped launch the Pac-12 Diversity Mentorship Program that pairs prospective college volleyball coaches with Pac-12 head coaches who mentor them. Now, she’s the first Black head coach of Arizona volleyball and will get to have her own mentee next year.
“I think having that firsthand experience means a lot,” Stubbs said. “I mean, it is a pressure in itself, just to be labeled as a person. So, I try not to add it to myself, because people will do it enough for you. But it is an honor that I’m gonna stand proud and recognize because it’s important. It’s nice to know when we had Obama as president, it was nice to look and say, ‘Hey, I really can be president’ versus people telling you it’s gonna happen. So, it’s like this poor Black kid from Cleveland coaching at a Power 5 university? Come on. So, it’s just a message that goes behind it. Sometimes you don’t have to say a word. It’s just the accomplishments behind it.”
That role of mentor was something Rubio fulfilled for her. She said he’s been preparing her to be the next head coach since she returned to Arizona in 2013. It got more serious a couple of years ago.
Her first tasks as the new head coach were to gather with the players and contact Arizona’s recruits. She said she sat down in a bean bag chair and talked about it with the current team after Rubio told them he would be hanging it up. Then, she had calls to make.
“Our number one recruit in the ‘24 class, as soon as Dave had put that out, both her and her dad called me and I was sweating bullets, because I couldn’t say anything,” Stubbs said. “And I was like, ‘Okay. Everything’s gonna be okay. I’ll call you tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll have some good news for you,’ is what I said. And that recruit was the first person I called once I finished talking to the team. We talked for about 30 minutes. She’s definitely on board, happy. The dad called me last night. We had a chat and laughed for about 40 minutes last night. So that was probably the one that scared me the most, to be honest. But everyone else jumped on board and I made sure I immediately told them that I was 100 percent committed to them, that I still want them to be a part of this program, because that’s who I am. I’m a person of my word.”
While Stubbs can’t name her, that No. 1 recruit is Carlie Cisneros, the 2022-23 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year and Prep Volleyball’s top player in the class of 2024.
Even as Arizona waits for Cisneros, Stubbs has plenty of talent on the roster. She has former top 25 recruit Jaelyn Hodge at outside hitter. Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2020, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, would likely have been at least top 10 if she played in the U.S. during high school and has played both on the left and the right sides for the Wildcats. Puk Stubbe had a difficult year as a sophomore but was Pac-12 All-Freshman in 2021 on the right side. Alayna Johnson showed a lot of promise at middle blocker last season as a sophomore. Ana Heath and Ava Tortorello give Arizona two setters who have been in the program for one and two years, respectively. The Wildcats also got a commitment from Oregon transfer defensive specialist/libero Becca Morse, who was out for most of last season with an injury but should step into the libero role vacated by Kamaile Hiapo’s transfer to BYU.
Next, she has to build a staff. Stubbs said one thing she didn’t do at NC State was handle the recruiting the way she would have liked because she didn’t really understand that she could choose to do that as a head coach. As someone who loves recruiting, she’s going to keep that responsibility at Arizona. So, she needs people who are good at handling training when she’s out recruiting and are diligent and hardworking. She said she already had people in mind, but since she only got the job the day before it would be a while before that part of it was in place.
After hiring a former player to follow a legend when Mike Candrea retired from softball, Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke believes it will work again.
“You don’t think someone’s gonna walk in your office and say, ‘I’m gonna retire,’” Heeke said. “Dave and I had talked about it, so it wasn’t one day…that it all happened. And you think about what would be the next step. And it was pretty clear as you try to mentally prepare as the athletic director for that. Who the people are that can do that job and what’s the right next fit? And Rita has been that person. We’ve seen her work, seen what she’s done, the relationships she has, the way she does develop players, her ability to recruit. And I go back to what Dave said, this place is about people, the people that are in this room, the people who make this program up, that’s what’s special about Arizona Athletics. And we’ve got good people here. And we’re glad to have Rita leading the program.”
As for how she’s going to lead the program, the lessons of NC State are still with her.
“Be true to yourself,” Stubbs said. “Put the right people around you and ask for help.”