Sports dynasties are largely a thing of the past. Red Auerbach’s Celtics, John Wooden’s Bruins and Casey Stengel’s Yankees are sports history, a testament to the rare magic that can occur when talented athletes are paired with great coaches.
Add to the list Dr. Duro Agbede’s Jaguars.
Since his arrival 25 years ago, Southwestern College’s cross country team has been the dominant force in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference. His women’s teams have won 12 PCAC titles in the last 15 years and two state titles. His pairing with Aminat Olowora this year and last has resulted in the fastest women’s 5K ever run in California.
It has been a historic run for Agbede, but he is nearing the finish line.
Agbede announced his retirement from coaching.
“This is my last season,” he said. “My time at SWC is not much of anything other than the kids. My job is just to report to practice and drive them crazy. Those kids who have come to this program and worked so hard, who brought the first state championship to Southwestern, those are the ones who own that time. I’m just coming to report for work every day.”
At Agbede’s last cross country meet as a coach, Olowora won the state title by a whopping 40 seconds. The duo will now focus on the track season and Olympic qualifications. Agbede is no stranger to Olympic-caliber training, having worked with many Olympic runners in his native Nigeria.
Other information about his personal journey is hard to come by. Almost media phobic when it comes to speaking about himself, Agbede is effusive when discussing students.
“What will I tell people about myself?” he said. “I like to talk about my athletes. The only thing I can tell you about myself is my name. I’m from (the) African jungle and I coach cross country. It’s not necessary to say more, but I can’t stop talking about the kids.”
Eclipsing his status as a coach are his accomplishments as an educator.
“My success as a coach has been purely academic,” he said. “The running championships, that comes as a byproduct, that is not the target itself. The target of my coaching at SWC is getting them out to universities on athletic scholarships. I want 100 percent scholarships. Almost every single athlete I recruit, I must visit their parents. I must know the home they come from and immediately it will give me the environment and the condition to best help them. There is no day in practice that I won’t talk to my athletes about their future. About future, about future, about future.”
Agbede’s own life path was set in motion by a scholarship to Jackson State University in Mississippi. He was the first ever recipient of Football Hall of Famer Walter Peyton’s scholarship for outstanding athletics and academic achievement. Agbede said he made the most of the opportunity.
“Because I only had a four-year scholarship, I went very fast with my undergraduate (studies),” he said. “I was able to finish my Master’s in that time. Then I went back home and taught at a university for five years. After that I came back to do my (Educational Specialist) program and Ph.D. all within the scope of three and a half years.”
His runners seem to have caught sight of that vision. Olowora was offered a lucrative endorsement deal by Nike that she turned down in order to maintain her collegiate eligibility. It was a move that turned heads, but Agbede said he was not surprised.
“In my part of the world you are recognized by what kind of letter is by your name,” he said. “We measure a person by academic achievement. So it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been to the Olympics 10 times, if you have no education, you are nothing. Our parents don’t even want us to do sports. For Olowora it is a major thing that she must be able to report back home. They are counting how many years she’s here and they are not counting whether she goes to the Olympics. They are counting when she will finish her education.”
Now that the cross country season ended, university recruiting begins. After the state championship in Fresno, Agbede introduced some college recruiters to Olowora and Jasmine Vasquez. He gave them some room to get acquainted, but not much, keeping a watchful eye throughout the interaction. Agbede said he stays very involved throughout the process.
“I’m like a salesman,” he said. “I want to sell their ability to the best school, but I also make sure that before they go, the coach there assures me and explains to me how they will graduate before I let them sign the letter. What if my athlete doesn’t finish in two years, what do you do? What’s the third year option? This athlete must finish their degree or you won’t get any athlete from this college.”
When talking about scholarship and academics, an intensity often referenced by his athletes creeps out.
Appearing mostly mild mannered and soft spoken, Vasquez said Agbede’s looks can be deceiving. “When he’s recruiting you, the first impression is that he’s mellow. Then you get to practice. He pushes our limits. We train hard every single day, no rest days. He has a very strong personality. He will push you and push you until you can no longer push. I think that is what makes him special.”
During the PCAC championship Agbede stood at the last turn of the course, 300 yards from the finish line, and urged his athletes to finish strong. Freshman David Flores trailed a Cuyamaca runner by about 15 meters heading into the last stretch. Agbede came as close to the runner as he could, yelling “Come on, you’ve got to sprint!”
Pointing at the runner ahead of Flores, Agbede hollered, “Are you going to let this guy beat you? You’ve got to take it from him!” Flores overtook his opponent at the finish line.
Olowora said Agbede’s tutelage has helped her reach new heights.
“In Nigeria I was running 19s and 18s,” she said. “After training with Duro, I’m getting down to 16s and I hope to get to 15s soon for the Olympics. He is a very tough trainer. Sometime my body doesn’t want to do certain things. Someone like Duro is important for me. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Although Agbede is stepping down to deal with some health concerns, his passion for coaching has not waned. He said he is leaving the door open for a possible return.
“I’ve had a couple of medical issues that I need to go and take care of right away,” he said. “I’m not the type that reports to a job just for the paycheck. I am somebody who comes to work to achieve. I know that I am not able to, due to obstacles like my hip, an ankle injury, a knee that needs replacement. All of this combined, I know it won’t allow me to stay at the level I set for myself. Not that I couldn’t stay and coach, it’s just that it won’t allow me to perform at the level I want to perform. I am confident that the next person will come here and continue to build the program. That is what has been established here. I am confident in that.”