As time passed Yamasaki’s athletic passion was reignited. She returned to where that passion was strongest, at the youth level, running clinics around the Bay Area and coaching high school volleyball and basketball. “What I learned from training young kids was how fun it was to make an impact on their lives,” she says. One Saturday morning after a basketball clinic, a boys’ basketball coach told her she had a coaching talent. He put her in contact with his niece—an employee with the Academy of Art University—who soon emailed Yamasaki and asked if she would be interested in meeting with the athletic director.
“I kept putting it off, thinking, Who are you and why do I need to meet your athletic director?’” Yamasaki says. “After three weeks of her asking I gave them an hour and we sat down. Dr. Williams went off about the Academy and what he was doing. And I was looking at him—and later he would say, ‘You looked at me like I was crazy.’ And after talking for 45 minutes straight he asked me, ‘So, do you want to be my coach?’”
Setting the standard
Dr. Williams knows what it takes to win. A 12-year NFL veteran and a Superbowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers, it’s no surprise he recognized Yamasaki’s history of winning and saw her fitting into his vision for the newborn Academy of Art athletic program. But when he asked her to coach the womens’ basketball team, she was the harshest interrogator at the interview. “You don’t know anything about me,” she said. “I’ve never coached collegiately.”
“I don’t care,” she remembers Dr. Williams responding.
“I’ve never coached a full high school season.”
“I don’t care.”
Despite her uncertainty, but with Williams’ unflinching confidence in her, Yamasaki took the job in February 2008.
Yamasaki began holding try-outs for the team with current Academy students while contacting high schools and scouting junior college showcases for potential talent. High school art students who didn’t want to give up basketball also sought her out. “It was a very organic way of working but to build a program you need the right personalities and the right players,” she says. “The biggest thing I told the girls I recruited was, You have an opportunity to make history. You are the first ever team. Our number one goal as a team was to set the standard for the future. It wasn’t winning. It was how do we want to behave in moments of adversity or triumph.”
Yamasaki grew into her role as head coach. Her love for her players and job allowed her to relax and set aside her detailed practice outlines, realizing the Academy of Art University wasn’t Stanford or the New York Liberty. “This is what I want it to be,” she says. “I can take the best of every coach I’ve had.”
Like any first-year team, the Urban Knights inaugural season was littered with potholes, going 6-20 over the campaign. “When it was over I think we were all relieved. 6-20—if you look at that on the one hand you say, You only won six games. But on the other hand you say, You’re a first-year program and you won six games. I’ve joked about it—those six teams must be pretty embarrassed.”
Yamasaki is still learning how to coach and new surprises arise each season. “I came into the season thinking I had two years of coaching under my belt and I finally had a level of talent I was happy with,” she says. “But it has been so hard. So hard. New players, new level of talent, new year equals new challenges. I think the biggest surprise is learning each year is a clean slate and you have to work just as hard if not harder to get to where you want to be.”
But Yamasaki feels the Urban Knights are about to turn a corner. “I feel it coming,” she says. “I don’t know if it will be a slew of wins or just a couple but I think we’re getting there.”