What It's Like To Play For Hall Of Fame UNC Coach Donna Papa
Each season, head coach Donna J. Papa adds something different to her coaching style. She changes her approach to each team depending on the personnel and, when necessary, game to game. If North Carolina hits a long losing streak, she’ll recall how the team rebounded from a last-place 1995 season to win the Atlantic Coast Conference the next year. If the Tar Heels go off on a solid winning streak, she’ll remind the team how to stay humble and act like winners like in 2019 when UNC was runner-up in the conference and went to the NCAA Regionals.
No matter the scenario, Papa has seen it before. Be it at UNC-Greensboro or St. John’s as an assistant coach, Susquehanna as the head coach or UNC as the lead woman for the last 36 years, Papa has seen lost seasons, championship teams and coached nearly 1,000 collegiate players.
“She just loves what she does,” UNC senior Brianna Stubbs said. “She's very passionate, she's driven, she knows exactly what she's talking about.”
After four years as a player for UConn, Papa graduated in 1979 and began coaching as an assistant with UNC-Greensboro while working on a master’s degree in physical education. Then, after two years at St. John's, she became the head softball and volleyball coach at Susquehanna, while also working as the women’s intramural coordinator, a physical education instructor and the school’s primary recruiter for women’s athletics. The River Hawks would go a combined 29-15 in her two seasons at the helm, winning the conference division and qualifying for the Middle Atlantic Conference Championship.
Just a year prior to taking over at UNC, the Tar Heels were in the final stages of transitioning to a fastpitch softball program under Susan Clark. The Tar Heels liked that Papa was a jack-of-all-trades at Susquehanna, and hired her following a nation-wide search.
UNC instantly saw her recruiting prowess when she traveled across the country to find the top pitching and catching prospects in order to build a contender. She used similar tactics then as she does now, which Stubbs recalls got her to Chapel Hill, N.C.
Stubbs said Papa would send her emails—like most other schools did during her recruiting process—to stay in touch following her freshman year at Creekview (Georgia) High School. But Papa would also mail letters to Stubbs containing facts about the university and its softball program as well as articles about different players for the Tar Heels.
She still keeps them in a folder tucked away in her room at home.
“One of the biggest things that stood out to me about Coach P was how passionate she was about what she does,” Stubbs said. “Whenever you see her coaching or talking to a player, you can just tell how much she loves her job and what she's doing.”
Papa has always kept her recruits entertained. It’s her “confident” personality that walks into a living room across the country of one of the top budding prospects in high school softball and turns them Carolina blue forever. The list of players includes women who went on to professional softball careers of their own, like Kristen Brown, and those who entered the coaching ranks themselves, such as Marshall’s Megan Smith Lyon.
But Stubbs said once players commit to Papa, she keeps them entertained until the day they leave Chapel Hill. Prior to each game against a new team, Papa has each player do crafts or an activity that pertains to the opponent. Before one game, Papa had each player write down a word or phrase describing what they want to do that game. Serious or sarcastic, they’d throw it in a bucket that Papa would keep tabs on. Periodically throughout the game, she’d grab a strip, walk up to the player and ask if they were doing what they’d written down beforehand.
She’ll allow Stubbs and the rest of the team to come into her office around Halloween. Gullible as she is, she’ll fall for the players' scheme to let them into the office, where they’d scare her on video and then share it on social media.
“She's learned how to become confident and…has a lot of knowledge in her head,” Stubbs said. “It's hard not to be confident whenever you're as successful and as knowledgeable as she is.”