Sometimes after retiring, people look back at their former jobs and long to have that life back. That’s not the case for former Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio, who retired last January after coaching at Arizona for 31 years.
“I tell you that my biggest regret is why I didn’t do it sooner,” Rubio said. “The thing that I realized, once you step away—and I’m probably not the only person that feels this way after they retire—if you’re really successful, really good at your job and just kind of put your head down and work, the years just roll by until you’re forced to retire or maybe hoping to retire. And then once you step out of that bubble, there’s a lot of life to live and not a lot of time to live it. And it’s kind of how I feel now. It’s like I’m 64 years old and don’t have as much time as you think you’re going to have, and so much stuff that you thought you’d have time for. Rocky LaRose has been my mentor at U of A. She said, ‘Once you retire, you’re gonna love it. You’re gonna wish you had done it sooner.’ And she was absolutely right. You live the job so much from day to day, and you’re so task-oriented, time just slips by. Before you know it, you’re an old person. I just don’t want that...I don’t have any regrets. I don’t miss any part of the job...So it’s been the right move for me and certainly the right move for the program that I stepped down because of where I was personally.”
While he’s enjoying retirement, knowing that he had an impact on his sport and the University of Arizona is gratifying. Wildcat fans are being reminded once again what he meant to the program with his inclusion in the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame class of 2023.
Rubio will join football great and multiple Super Bowl winner Rob Gronkowski, Olympic silver medalist Beloved Promise (née Brigetta Barrett), Kirsten Smith who was the first Arizona women’s basketball player to score 1,000 points, two-time baseball All-American Preston Guilmet, eight-time cross country and track All-American Stephen Sambu, NCAA Woman of the Year winner Justine Schluntz, and longtime administrator John Perrin.
“I still really haven’t processed that,” Rubios said. “It is quite an honor. Considering all the coaches who are part of the Hall of Fame, coaches who were here when I got hired at U of A in 1992. They were part of a coaching cadre here at Arizona at the time, from Rick LaRose to Kim Haddow, Jerry Kindall, Mike Candrea, Lute Olson, Frank Busch. All those guys won national championships and all those people are in the Hall of Fame. So, it’s quite an honor to be mentioned with some of these coaches.”
It has always been Rubio’s way to downplay his accomplishments. When he was mentioned as Arizona’s longest-serving head coach following Mike Candrea’s retirement, he shrugged it off, saying that Fred Harvey should have that honor because he was at Arizona longer even if some of it was as an assistant. When he hit 500 wins at Arizona, he said that anyone who stayed in one place long enough would get those milestones.
While Rubio may minimize his achievements, his successor and former player does not.
“I think that’s huge,” said current Arizona volleyball head coach Rita Stubbs. “I think it’s more than deserving for what he’s done for the program and for the state of Arizona and for the University. It’s a huge honor.”
Rubio is still having an impact on volleyball, and it’s certainly been keeping him busy. He retired from coaching volleyball so he could coach more volleyball. When he's not traveling for fun, most of his days are full of clinics for young volleyball players or coaches at the club and high school levels.
Rubio arrived at his retirement press conference with a surfboard back in January. The longtime surfer said it was something he was going to spend more time doing. He has been able to do more of that, even using a board with graphics picked out by his son.
Rubio and his family took a trip to Japan over the summer. It was the first time he’d been to the country where his mother’s family is from since he was 25.
“I traveled there in 1984,” Rubio said. “My parents and I took a trip around the world, and that was one of our stops.”
He said this trip was actually easier than the one the family took almost 40 years ago.
“Back then, things were a lot more difficult to get around,” he said. “Still a wonderful country, but I was 25 years old versus 64. So it was a lot of things that changed and maybe the only country in the world that has actually gotten better over the years.”
It was especially important to return to Japan with his mother. Although she grew up in the U.S.—where she was interned along with over 125,000 other people of Japanese descent as a five-year-old during World War II—there is extended family still in Japan. Going to visit them on a regular basis wasn’t something Rubio was able to do as a Division I volleyball coach.
“It was pretty exceptional for the family, including my mom, for us to do that together and go to a country like that,” Rubio said.
He also wasn’t able to go fishing with his friends in the fall during the past four decades. That was an option in 2023.
“So nice to have a fall to call my own,” Rubio said. “It’s been great.”
One thing he has avoided is spending much time around Arizona volleyball out of respect for Stubbs. He did plan to come see his friends coach against each other when the Wildcats face New Mexico State on Friday night, though. He once referred to the NMSU coaching staff as “like family.”
“I really have not watched [Arizona] play at all,” Rubio said. “I’ll probably get a chance this weekend...I didn’t want to put any extra added pressure on the team or, certainly, on Rita by me being around a lot. So, right now, just kind of watching from afar and really hoping for the best for them.”
At heart, Rubio will always be a volleyball coach, though. When he’s not traveling with family, he’s traveling around Arizona and other states in the West to teach young players the fundamentals of the game. He is especially interested in raising boys’ interest in the sport of volleyball.
“It’s been great for my soul,” Rubio said. “It’s working on the grassroots level with 11, 12, 13-year-olds. It’s really been good just for my own growth and happiness. You look at things differently versus trying to prepare a college team. Every match becomes so crucial and so important. It’s hard to breathe when you lose, and you’re just not that happy when you win, then you’re on to the next match. Youth volleyball and working with young kids, you know, they’re vibrant. The world is in front of them. So, it’s been a really good transition from the level I was at.”
He ran a camp in Cochise County for young players, and he will return to run one for coaches in the area. He also took a trip to Oregon to work with the club that produced former Arizona standout Paige Whipple and future Wildcat Paige Thies. He is coaching in the Youth Volleyball League (YVL) in Tucson. He has also dropped in at some high school practices.
That devotion to volleyball, especially in the state of Arizona, has been a part of Rubio’s life for decades. In 1992, he took over a program that went 0-18 the year before. In 1993, the Wildcats went to the first of two straight Sweet 16s. In his 31 years at the helm, Arizona played in eight Sweet 16s, four Elite Eights, and one Final Four. Its last Sweet 16 was in 2016.
Perhaps more importantly, Rubio helped the sport grow in the state. Arizona regularly produces some of the highest-rated recruits in the country. It can’t compete with larger states like California and Texas, but on a per capita basis, the state is a source of a strong pool of talent.
Rubio spent considerable time recruiting local talent during his career. Not only was it common to have Arizona kids on the team, but it was common to have Tucson kids playing for the Wildcats.
Some of the best players developed in the state eventually wore cardinal and navy. Part of that was because Rubio gave them a chance at Arizona while ASU tended to recruit overseas, especially in recent years. So, if a player wanted to stay in her home state and had the talent for the Pac-12, UA was where that opportunity existed for her.
One of the strangest examples of that difference in philosophies was Arizona beach volleyball assistant coach Makenna Martin. She is the granddaughter of the first quarterback for ASU football after it became a university. Her parents attended ASU. Her uncle was an architect for renovations on what’s now Mountain America Stadium. She was born and raised in the Valley, and her high school boyfriend played football at ASU. She was not recruited by the Sun Devils but played four years for Arizona’s beach and indoor teams before becoming an assistant under Steve Walker.
Rubio was still giving Arizona kids chances as his retirement approached. Current freshman Journey Tucker committed to the program after returning to the sport following a brain tumor. While he retired before she arrived, Tucker got the opportunity she was afraid would never come.
“I was a little nervous because I had my tumor during my junior year and more specifically when girls are playing at that collegiate level,” Tucker said. “They already have their commitment by then. And when it was rolling up on my senior year and I still hadn’t committed, I was a little bit nervous....it was in my mind like am I even going to be able to play at a collegiate level? But to have Rubio and Rita reach out to me in such a difficult time and offer me to be able to play here, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
The current Arizona team, almost all of whom originally committed to play for Rubio, has six players from the state. That’s nearly one-third of the roster. Two of those players—outside hitters Jaelyn Hodge and Jordan Wilson—were among the best high school players in the country. If Rubio hadn’t offered opportunities to so many girls from the state, would the foundations to train players like Hodge and Wilson have ever been laid? That’s more than worthy of Hall of Fame honors.
Up Next: Wildcat Classic continues (Sept. 15-16)
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
New Mexico State Aggies (6-2, 0-0 WAC) @ Arizona Wildcats (3-6, 0-0 Pac-12)
When: Friday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. MST
History: Arizona has a 23-1 lead in the series. The teams play most years because of their proximity to each other and the fact that Rubio was close to NMSU head coach Mike Jordan. Rubio’s brother Keith used to be on the staff of NMSU. Former Arizona assistant coach Gregg Whitis is still on the staff.
Aggies’ Season to Date: NMSU has losses to Arizona State and UC Santa Barbara.
Stubbs Says: “They’re just really different and what they’re doing is not a typical Michael Jordan team...their players are running different routes, which is good.”