Mt. Lebanon High School Track & Field / Cross Country coach Mike Agostinella greets former student athletes during a send-off party held for him inside the high school center-court cafeteria.
Mike Agostinella was catching up with one of his former student-athletes early this summer. “He was telling me that he’s applied for Social Security, and I’ve known him since he was 17 years old,” Agostinella said.
Let that sink in.
Longevity is just one quality that defines Agostinella, the long-time Mt. Lebanon High School boys’ cross country and track coach known universally as Coach A. There is also success, impact and respect.
Those things run deep enough that people associated with the Lebo track and cross country programs organized a dinner for Agostinella on August 19 at the school so all sorts of people who ran for him and worked with him over more than 50 years could celebrate his career, from 1967 when he arrived as a student teacher and volunteer assistant coach, to 1975 when he left to coach the University of Pitt track team, to 1985 when he returned to Lebo as a phys ed and health teacher and assistant track coach, to the next year when he took over the boys’ teams from Don Mollenauer, to 2021 when he retired from coaching and teaching.
He still helps out some as a volunteer coach, coming full circle.
“I was kind of shocked that people are still interested,” Agostinella, 78, who lives in Bethel Park with his wife, Karen, said of being feted.
That reaction surprised no one.
“He’s a very humble guy,” said Patrick Anderson, a senior at the University of North Carolina who was one of Agostinella’s most successful Lebo runners, a two-time state cross country champion who also made it to the national championships.
“He’s outgoing, but at the same time conservative in some ways,” Anderson said. “He was all in on wanting to be good, and he kept us in line with that. But at the same time a very genuine and authentic guy who just really wanted success for all of his guys and his team.
“He always wanted to have a good team, but also wanted to develop people long term. For me, that was great because he was always looking to the future. He didn’t want to overtrain me, wanted to prepare me to get better years in the future. But he also wanted to develop us into good people.”
Agostinella’s cross country teams earned four WPIAL titles and finished in the top five more than 20 times. Anderson and Shawn Cavanaugh were state champions.
His cross country team won a state title in 1998 and his track team finished second four times. In 2003 a Lebo distance medley relay team was fifth in the country to earn All-American status. And a long list of WPIAL and state champions is in the Hall of Champions.
While he was at Pitt, the Panthers featured future Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom, NCAA runner-up and future NFL player Karl Farmer and a 4X800-meter relay team that set an NCAA record.
It wasn’t all about the champions, though.
“People who weren’t going to be in the top seven, or top 10, still wanted to come out year after year because they wanted to be a part of it,” said Charlie Ban, of Washington, D.C., who ran for Agostinella from 1996-2000 and was one of the organizers of the dinner.
“It was never really with a heavy hand; he just knew how to put people in a place to succeed. He tailored his workouts and assignments to each runner’s abilities.”
Oscar Shutt was Agostinella’s assistant for eight years starting in 2007 before being promoted to head girls’ coach, so he was in a good spot to see what made the long-time coach tick.
“I would say it’s his expectation for excellence,” Shutt said. “He has a certain standard that he expected people to meet and made the athletes aware of it. That allowed everybody to raise their level to meet that.
“At the same time, he loved to kind of laugh and have jokes and keep things light. Loved using puns. He kind of sensed sometimes when things were getting a little too heavy and that’s when he would throw a joke in there.”
Agostinella said the jokes often came on the eve of a meet. They were mostly what nowadays might be called dad jokes. “I would laugh; they would groan,” he said.
Lighthearted moments aside, Agostinella was all in on coaching.
Years ago, he brokered a deal with Lebo police to let the cross country runners train on the municipality’s streets as long as they wore safety vests. He adjusted as trends and techniques evolved—from water and salt tablets to Gatorade and carbohydrate loading; to specialized equipment and running shoes; to refined weight room workouts and reps at practice based on advances in science.
Agostinella never made the leap to internet research, but he kept a library of books and attended camps and clinics.
“It’s really simple—it’s his life,” said Drew Haberberger, who was an assistant under Agostinella and took over as head track coach when he retired. “He committed to helping people be the best athletes they can be.”
Agostinella put in the time and the work, and his runners responded in kind.
“He always trusted his athletes,” Anderson said. “He would coach you. He would do all the workouts with you. He would help you. But at the end of the day, in my personal experience, he would say, ‘You go run your race.’
“We had a great relationship because we trusted each other.”