“As a coach, I am lucky to have a team like this. They have grown so much.” Photograph by Arvin Lim, ABS-CBN Sports
Drive Sports and Fitness

Godfrey Okumu, the Lady Maroons, and the long and winding road to glory

It took three tries to convince the Kenyan coach to leave a comfortable job in Japan to help the UP women’s volleyball team break a decades-long drought. In looking back at what he gave up and where he came from, he faces forward to what he and his players can achieve.
Josh Buenaventura | Feb 16 2019

Continuity.

It’s what they say is the most crucial aspect of a collegiate athletic program. With the development of young players at stake, there simply cannot be a revolving door of coaches and mentors each year.

Collegiate coaches need time with their players. They need to learn their players. At the same time, the players grow and mature. Their development needs to be in sync with each other. Success is not attained in an instant, in a snap of a finger, just like that.

As the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid loves to say it, they need to “Trust the process.”

For the University of the Philippines’ women’s volleyball team, this process began in late November 2017. This was the time when change indeed happened to the school’s women’s volleyball program.

After achieving their modest goal of reaching the UAAP Final Four in Season 78 (2016), the UP Lady Maroons would experience a complete downturn of events in the next year and a half.

Despite a red hot start of 4-0 in UAAP Season 79 with huge upstart wins over University of Santo Tomas and powerhouse De La Salle University, the Lady Maroons crawled to a staggering finish the rest of the way after a dismal straight-set loss to the Ateneo Lady Eagles.

They missed the Final Four by one game, losing a crucial and deciding match to their league rivals FEU Lady Tamaraws.

That, combined with various different issues off the court, was just the start.

With a lot of issues surrounding the team, head coach Jerry Yee—their mentor since UAAP Season 76—stepped down from his post in mid 2017.

That could have well been rock bottom.

The UP Lady Maroons had no direction. They were grasping in the dark. In a landscape where everyone is improving day-by-day, year-by-year, they had no time to lose. And that’s when they turned to their current head coach Godfrey Owese Okumu.

"Life is how you make it. This is how I make it. Make the most out of every small opportunity that comes."

Quick transitions

Contrary to the notion that he had a couple of months to prepare the team for UAAP Season 80, Gody—as his players and those around him refer to him—was quick to rebut that it was more of like two or three weeks.

“With all the weekends, Saturdays, holidays, and press days in between, I think it was something like two weeks and a half,” laughs Gody.

When asked how he found his way to Diliman after all his travels around the world involving volleyball, he quickly tells the story of how his way to UP was actually years in the making already.

“Around 4 or 5 years before I came here, I met their former head coach as we were both studying the same FIVB course. Throughout that process, I figured to help him and his team and share my knowledge by doing some volleyball trainings and workshops. That’s how it started. I got to know the players and from there the relationship grew,” added Okumu.

Prior to UAAP Season 79, the Lady Maroons held their training camp in Japan, where Okumu lived and coached. He invited them to his school, and they also played the game with his daughter. They spent 10 days training and working together, which was evident in their fiery start to that UAAP season.

Funny thing was, they actually asked him to coach them back then. He simply said no.

Okumu states that he had a good job in the land of the rising sun. His daughter was still about to finish high school at the time. His life was definitely there.

A couple of months later, he hears about Yee’s resignation. UP comes calling again for him.

And yet, he still said no.

Weeks later, they still wanted him. Okumu gave the same answer.

Yes, he rejected the job three times.

Eventually, it was his daughter who persuaded him to accept the job.

"The most challenging thing now is the pressure from the outside. Everyone wants to be the coach, the fans included. It’s not a bad thing. But it does keep us coaches on our toes.”

“Some of the players here, they are like my family. They are also close to my daughter. So the two of us eventually talked about it and I gave in to the pressure of coaching the team. I had some questions and some conditions, but UP was more than willing to provide them and we were able to meet each other’s demands,” shares Coach Gody, a huge smile flashing across his face.

Asked about the difference in his preparation for this Season 81 compared to last year, he proudly states that he shared everything he learned about volleyball from all over the world. He’s given the ladies a look at all his experiences as a player and coach in Africa, Asia, and Europe and he hopes all of those will be carried into the latter stages of the UAAP volleyball tournament.

“Last year, we finished strong (referring to their three-game winning streak by beating the likes of National University, Ateneo, and University of the East to cap off Season 80), which means the team was catching up well to the training toward the end. From there we just continued to work, day in, day out. We were lucky to have won both the PVL and PSL titles, and a bronze medal at the Unigames. The only drawback is, we did not play against everyone else in the UAAP,” said Okumu.

He may be referring to Ateneo, who decided to skip the 2018 PVL Collegiate Conference, and La Salle, who has not participated in any major tournament since last season’s UAAP.

The former Japanese mentor adds, “We haven’t seen them play so we cannot judge them. We cannot say how we will play against a team we have not seen. To me, they are the teams to watch out for. But we also cannot take for granted the teams we played against because we know they will be coming for revenge. It makes me feel like a birthday cake, where everybody wants to have a piece of you. It’s going to be interesting, but it’s not going to be easy for my team.”

Ample preparation

In his final postgame interview after their last game of Season 80, Okumu was brave enough to say that they will make the Final Four this coming UAAP Season 81.

Pushed for an answer as to whether he still stands by with that statement, he quickly explains: “I think we are almost there. We have a bigger chance of making it. I’ll say that here. With the trend of games, we have a chance. And if we get lucky, we might even win. I think we have a big chance like every other team.”

But with those two offseason volleyball titles, people are now expecting more out of the Diliman squad. The pressure just reached its all-time high in decades. If they succeed, they will end a 37-year UAAP women’s volleyball title drought for the maroon and green.

He knows that some of the players think about it, that it is at the back of their minds. But they never really talk about it. He just says that in their minds, they only want to make history.

“We’ve already made many people proud. The sponsors, the community, the chancellor’s office, the president. They were really impressed with the results we’ve had. We have a lot of hopes and we on the other hand we are under a lot of pressure to repeat our performance,” explains the Kenyan mentor.

“But first we set our sights on the Final Four. If we get past that, then we start talking about the Finals. Once we’re there, then we can start saying ‘We are out to make it here.’ I believe it will be a good season for us. For the team, the community, and the fans.”

His confidence this year is a direct contrast to last season’s.

“Coming into this, I knew it was not going to be easy. Given the sports politics, the pressure by the fans, and the expectations of a community such as this, it’s pretty high. Given all that I had to learn. It took me one full year here to know how to work around the sport itself. The most challenging thing now is the pressure from the outside. Everyone wants to be the coach, the fans included. It’s not a bad thing. But it does keep us coaches on our toes,” adds the mentor from Nyanza, Kenya.

From player to coach

It was here in his home country in Africa where his volleyball coaching career began.

Okumu used to be a professional volleyball player, with various stints from all over the globe. He never really planned to be a coach.

After playing for 13 years for the Kenyan national team, he was asked by the University of Nairobi—which he shares is similar to UP—to coach its men’s volleyball team. He was 30 years old at the time.

They competed at the Eastern Central Africa Inter-University Games where he led his team to a 3rd place finish despite having a lot of doubters. People wrote them off, not even believing they could finish in the top six. Yet they still grabbed the bronze.

That was his first foray into coaching.

“Mostly I did my own self-coaching. Look at how other players are playing, watch videos, do things by myself. I got help from other coaches but I think at some time I had more information about volleyball than my coaches. It happens around in this sport. When I moved to Japan to work and play volleyball, that’s when I realized that I could study to be a coach. I was in a professional club as a coach before the coaching courses. After that, the rest is history. That’s why I’m here, and I hope I’m helping a lot,” elaborates Okumu.

Studying is a huge part of Coach Gody’s DNA. Not just in sports or on the volleyball court, but inside the four walls of the classroom as well. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he agreed to coach UP in the first place.

After graduating from the University of Cumbria with an MBA, he is currently taking his Masters in Sports Science in UP Diliman.

“I’m a business person but I’m a coach of volleyball. I trained to be a sportsman while studying in business. It’s not been easy for me. But I can do sports science and learn so many things. As I came here, I left a job that I was planning to work until I retire, to take a part-time job. That in itself is an interesting story out of love for the game, love for the people, and wanting to serve the sport and the people who love volleyball. It’s a story out of friendship. It’s a story out of love for the sport. It’s a rare opportunity to study and work at the same time. It’s challenging, but it’s fun,” he shares.

“That’s what this life is all about. Because at the end of the day, life is how you make it. This is how I make it. Make the most out of every small opportunity that comes,” finishes the sophomore UAAP coach.

Beyond trophies

As the UAAP Season 81 women’s volleyball tournament opens today, Okumu wants to dedicate this upcoming journey by his team to their late sponsor, Mr. Dominic Sytin, who was killed a few months back in a still unresolved case.

The founder and CEO of United Auctioneers, Inc.—a Subic was based company that auctions off trucks and heavy equipment—who has been the main sponsor of the team for several years now, Sytin was instrumental in bringing Gody to the Philippines.

“Without him, I wasn’t going to be here. And the team is now showing signs of improvement and we have strength. Because of his efforts, we are someone to reckon with in the world of volleyball now in the Philippines,” laments Okumu.

He further states, “I hope it will not stop there. We will continue to keep fighting and living by his legacy that he wanted the team to be strong and to improve by all means.”

Before departing on a short trip to Cebu—where it seems he is recruiting talent—Godfrey concludes:

“I believe my team is ready. They are focused and ready to go. I’d say we are lucky. As a coach, I am lucky to have a team like this. They have grown so much.”

 

 

Photographs by Luisa Morales and Keith Magcaling