Donna J. Papa retires after 38 seasons leading softball program

The fourth head coach in Carolina Softball history, Papa won Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles and Coach-of-the-Year honors five times and led the Tar Heels to 15 NCAA Tournament appearances.

Donna J. Papa
(Illustration by GoHeels.com)

Donna J. Papa, the fifth-longest tenured head coach in any sport in University of North Carolina history and the sixth-winningest in NCAA softball history, announced her retirement Thursday as head coach of the Tar Heels.

Papa led Carolina for 38 of her 40 seasons as a head coach and compiled 1,339 of her 1,368 wins while at Carolina.

A member of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame since 2012, Papa retires as the second-winningest active coach in the sport behind only Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso.

“It has been a great honor and pleasure to have represented the University of North Carolina for the last 38 years,” says Papa. “I am grateful to the administrators who took a chance on me, starting with (Director of Athletics) John Swofford, continuing with Dick Baddour, to Bubba Cunningham and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. I have been fortunate to work with so many outstanding coaches, players and people at UNC and throughout my career. I am incredibly grateful to so many, especially my current staff – Chelsey, Fale, Kiwi, Jordan and Preston – who have supported me this season and throughout the years.”

The University of Connecticut graduate began her coaching career in Chapel Hill in the 1985-86 season after two seasons as head coach at Susquehanna. She won Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles and Coach-of-the-Year honors five times (1996, 1998, 2000, 2008 and 2012) and led the Tar Heels to 15 NCAA Tournament appearances.

The Tar Heels won a school-record 50 games in 2008, going 18-2 in ACC play and 50-12-1 overall. Her teams won 30 or more games 30 times and 40 or more in 14 seasons.

In 2001, Carolina won the ACC Tournament title, one of five times the Tar Heels played in the ACC championship game.

“For 38 years, Donna has served as a valued leader and advocate for Carolina Softball, women’s athletics and our University,” says Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham. “She has long been dedicated to building winning teams, coaching teamwork and teaching Tar Heels the value of leadership on and off the field. Her legacy is not only her 1,339 wins, but also the hundreds of Carolina Softball alumni who are serving their communities and giving back in so many positive ways. Thank you, Donna, for your long commitment to Carolina, and we wish you the very best in retirement.”

A national search for Carolina’s next head coach will begin immediately.

“The players and our program have always been in the forefront of my decisions,” says Papa. “Building relationships was always the special part of coaching for me and the paths I chose were based on seeing players as people and students first. I believe by retiring now I am leaving the program in a great position to compete for championships. We have an outstanding group of players returning and are bringing in a top-20 recruiting class. Carolina softball is ready to take that next step to accomplish great things.”

The fourth head coach in Carolina Softball history, Papa coached 10 players who combined for 14 All-America seasons, 11 who won ACC awards, 92 who earned All-ACC honors and 72 who were named to all-region teams.

Papa coached a trio of first-team All-Americas – Christine Kubin (1996), Brandy Arthur (1998) and Danielle Spaulding (2010).

In 2016, Kristen Brown became the first softball player to win the Patterson Medal, the University’s most prestigious award given annually to a student-athlete for most outstanding career achievements.

Papa’s players succeeded in the classroom, scoring a perfect 1000 in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rates in six of the last eight years and nine times overall, and registering an average rate of 997 out of 1000 since the APR began 19 years ago. More than 40 players earned Academic All-ACC honors and two, Kubin and Sara Jubas, were Academic All-Americas.

“Donna Papa has defined Carolina Softball for decades,” says Guskiewicz. “We are grateful for her commitment to excellence and incredible achievements both on and off the field. Her legacy as a coach, teacher and mentor to generations of Carolina athletes has shaped our university community and I know her impact will continue to be felt through the amazing program she has built.”

Papa, who was named one of Carolina’s 50 Champions of Women’s Athletics to honor the 50th anniversary of Title IX in 2022, is fifth all-time in seasons coached at Carolina behind only fencing’s Ron Miller (52 seasons), women’s soccer’s Anson Dorrance (46, active), field hockey’s Karen Shelton (42) and gymnastics’ Derek Galvin (39).

“The opportunity to coach young women and see them grow and develop at UNC and beyond has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life,” says Papa. “It has been an honor to have coached so many amazing young women. I have learned so much from them and consider them part of my family. They are the ones that have driven my passion every day and made me strive always to give them my best. I am so proud of how they have represented UNC and cherish the relationships we have built over the last 38 years.”

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