In Memoriam: Barbara Kushubar

Posted on April 1st, 2024 by Travis Dix

Averett mourns loss of professor, Hall of Famer Barbara Kushubar, whose impact spanned academics, athletics

By Drew Wilson/Director of Athletics Communications

“Professor Kushubar.” “Coach K.” “Barb.” “Kushubar.” “Kush.” No matter by which name someone knew Barbara Kushubar ’75, her impact ran deep and her reach expanded across many areas of Averett University during her 36 years as a professor and coach after returning to her alma mater.

Few have been as big of an influence on Averett’s campus as Kushubar, who passed away Sunday after a valiant battle with cancer. Perhaps what made Kushubar so special was her ability to connect with so many, as if she had a sixth sense to see that untapped potential in those she guided through their Averett journey.

When Kushubar took over as then-Averett College’s women’s volleyball coach in 1989, the previous head coach, Joy Richman, recommended a student by the name of Danny Miller ‘91, ’95 to continue helping with the program. Eventually, Kushubar helped create a graduate assistant position so that Miller could continue to serve as her assistant after he finished his bachelor’s degree. Together, they built the foundations of success for the women’s volleyball program before Kushubar handed the keys over to Miller after the 1994 season. Clearly, Kushubar saw something in Miller, who went on to win 661 games, eight conference tournament titles and 14 regular season crowns over the next 27 seasons during his Hall of Fame career.

“She helped me find my calling and was instrumental in helping me stay at Averett,” said Miller, who retired from coaching after the 2021 season but continues to serve Averett as deputy director of athletics. “Throughout my entire career, Kushubar was always supportive and there for me and my family. It is hard for me to have to think about Averett without Kushubar around because she’s always been there to help everyone grow and develop. She has always and will continue to be a role model for me.”

A 2014 Averett Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, Kushubar made her mark as a coach in several programs after competing as a student-athlete at Averett in the 1970s. As the volleyball head coach from 1989-1994, she guided the Cougars to four conference titles and was named the conference’s Coach of the Year three consecutive years (1992-1994). Kushubar also coached the women’s tennis program to four conference championships and was named the conference Coach of the Year three consecutive times (1994-1996). She also served as the Averett women’s basketball coach for two seasons and helped with the Cougars’ now-defunct field hockey program in the late 1970s. In addition to coaching, Kushubar was the assistant director of athletics for two years and served as an associate professor in the physical education department from 1986 until her death. She was twice was named the Averett Faculty Member of the Year, received the Faculty Appreciation Award from the football program in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and served as a Faculty Athletics Mentor for the department. In 2015, Averett’s Department of Athletics honored Kushubar by rebranding one of its major awards as the Barbara Kushubar Female Student-Athlete of the Year Award.

Those accolades highlighted the impact that Kushubar made, but they never defined her. It was never about the banners hanging on the walls or the trophies in the lobby showcase. Instead, it was always about the people.

“I can’t tell you my wins or losses, but I can tell you about the students I’ve worked with, the players I’ve coached and those who’ve served as team managers and statisticians,” Kushubar said in 2014 when she was announced as a member of the Averett Hall of Fame class. “It’s been an honor and this award is for those students, not for me.”

Not long after Kushubar’s death was announced by the University Sunday night, alumni, current students, faculty, staff and other members of the community flooded social media with reactions to the heartbreaking news. Many offered condolences, shared memories, wrote tributes and grieved the loss of an Averett icon — some used the “GOAT” emoji, an acronym for “greatest of all time.”

Senior women’s track and field student-athlete Lotta Tiittanen posted the video of Kushubar pinning her during Averett’s Senior Pinning Ceremony last fall.

“’I am beyond proud of you, can’t wait to see what you do in the future, go break barriers I know you can,’” were the words Tiittanen recalled Kushubar sharing with her in that moment.

Those types of encouraging words were the norm from Kushubar. If you passed by her office at the end of the hallway in the Grant Center, you’d regularly find students, coaches and staff members seated in a chair or standing in the doorway. People flocked to Kushubar because she was real. She pushed students to see something in themselves that maybe they hadn’t yet. In turn, they didn’t want to let her down because she cared so deeply for them and their future success.

“Kush had the magical ability to make people believe in themselves,” said Emma Olsson ‘14, ’16, assistant director of athletics and senior woman administrator. Olsson was a student-athlete on the women’s soccer program, then became a graduate assistant within athletics before being promoted to an administrator. Throughout Olsson’s time at Averett, Kushubar took her under her wing and continued to help guide her through her young adult life and career.

“I’ve often reflected on how effectively she turned my self-doubt around,” Olsson said. “I think she simply believed in me and my abilities until I had no choice but to believe in myself. Her servant’s heart and dedication to her students were contagious, and it’s hard to imagine the hallways without her. While the grief of losing Kush is overwhelming, there’s also a profound sense of gratitude for everything she did for me personally and for the countless people around her.”

Kushubar was selfless. Even as she courageously battled her illness, she still put students first and taught classes until the very end. For those who knew Kushubar, that was nothing new.

Amy Cross ’97, an Averett Athletics Hall of Famer and USA South Athletic Conference Hall of Famer who played tennis for Kushubar, recalled during a 2022 interview a story that embodied Kushubar’s dedication to students. Cross said when her dad passed away in September 2015 — nearly two decades after Cross graduated from Averett — Kushubar drove the nearly eight hours round trip to be there for the funeral.

“She’s one of the best people I’ve ever known in my entire life,” Cross said in 2022. “I learned a lot about being a good person, a tennis player and a teammate from her.”

When she wasn’t teaching or advising, Kushubar always found a way to make a difference in students’ lives. She regularly worked Averett’s Late Night Breakfast events the night before final exams, making pancakes with fellow professor Richard Breen ’81.

For those who walked by her door regularly on a Monday morning, Kushubar greeted them with a “Good morning! How was your weekend?” She’d regularly ask how staff members’ families were doing. It was all genuine, never just small talk. Her love for people and for Averett transcended so many parts of the institution. She proudly carried on the tradition of hosting the North Campus’ annual holiday luncheon on reading day in December. With a passion for playing golf in her free time, she was a driving force behind Averett Athletics’ annual Cougar Golf Classic golf tournament fundraiser for many years. Need her to promote Day of Giving or anything Averett related? Kushubar was always willing to help. She served on various committees whether in academics or athletics. She was the type of person people wanted to surround themselves with in every way.

“Barb Kushubar was instantly a true ally for me after joining Averett, immediately ensuring I felt welcomed, valued and loved through gestures as simple as a dinner invitation,” said Meg Stevens, vice president, director of athletics and campus operations. “She stands out as one of the few who could deliver me the cold hard truth about my decisions, offering a blend of stern kindness that has both comforted me in times of need and pushed me toward my highest potential. Her mentorship surpassed the usual boundaries, impacting not just students but colleagues like myself in deep and lasting ways. Having her as a mentor and one of my best friends is a gift I have treasured deeply.”

Over time, as is the nature with college campuses, people come and go. Not Kushubar. She had been one of the constants for nearly four decades. When Homecoming came around each fall, alumni always looked for her familiar face at events. When alumni, both young and old, happened to be coming through Danville, they’d end up in her doorway to be welcomed by Kushubar’s big smile.

Her role wasn’t limited to current students and alumni. She played an integral part in recruiting the next class of Cougars to campus, often meeting with numerous recruits — especially on football game days.

“Coach Kush was a part of almost every home game recruiting from 2016 until last season,” Averett football head coach Patrick Henry said. “Her message to recruits was clear. Her love for Averett, the Averett faculty and staff commitment to our student-athletes and how her role as faculty athletic mentor could help them succeed as a student-athlete here at Averett and provide another layer of support. Her passion, love and care for our Averett student-athletes was unmatched.”

Kushubar was Averett, through and through.

“That’s how everyone referred to Kush, whether they had just met her or known her for decades,” Olsson said. “I believe it’s because she truly embodied everything Averett represents.”

Always humble, Kushubar would most assuredly say others helped her more than she helped them — even though more times than not it was the other way around.

“My friends and my Averett family have been wonderful and have helped me in this journey,” Kushubar said in 2014. “They’ve helped me grow, and I hope I’ve done the same for them.”

Judging by the emotional reactions on social media or the tributes placed by her door in a makeshift memorial on Monday, it’s safe to say her mission was accomplished.

The Averett community will celebrate the life of Kushubar on Sunday, April 7, at 2 p.m. in the E. Stuart James Grant Center. Attendees are encouraged to wear Averett gear or blue and gold in her honor. The event will be streamed live for those who are unable to attend.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Barbara Kushubar Memorial Fund where they will be used to create a fitting tribute to her accomplishments, or to a charity of your choice.