In memoriam: Jimmy Yagi, the father of small college basketball in Hawaiʻi, UH Hilo icon

Coach Jimmy Yagi, a lifelong Hilo resident, was a community and UH Hilo icon. He remains the winningest men’s basketball head coach in UH Hilo history with a 218-87 record. 

Jimmy Yagi pictured
Jimmy Yagi fashioned a 252-126 career overall record and coached the very first UH Hilo Vulcan team to compete at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level in 1976-77. (UH Hilo Athletics)

Former University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Basketball Coach James Toshio Yagi, the “Father of Small College Basketball in Hawaiʻi,” died on June 14 at the age of 88.

Yagi was inducted into the inaugural UH Hilo Athletics Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Big Island Sports Hall of Fame. He remains the winningest men’s basketball head coach (against college teams) in UH Hilo history with a 218-87 record (his first three seasons were prior to National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics membership).

“Coach Yagi is a beloved and iconic figure in the state of Hawai‘i as a legendary coach, educator, and mentor,” says Patrick Guillen, director of athletics at UH Hilo. “He is a legend in the coaching profession and a giant of a human being. His passing is a tremendous loss for our community, but we know he leaves a legacy that will live on through all the lives he has touched.”

Yagi had a 252-126 career overall record and coached the very first Vulcan team to compete at National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level in 1976–77. He took the Vulcans to the NAIA national tournament three times and put UH Hilo basketball on the map as the biggest game in town.

Jimmy Yagi, held up by players on the court, cuts net away from basket rim.
Coach Jimmy Yagi celebrates with team (Photo courtesy of UH Hilo Athletics)

Games at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium often sold all 3,000 seats, and Yagi wasn’t afraid to bring in Division I teams to Hawai‘i Island. That first season, the Vulcans shocked the basketball world by upsetting Division I Nebraska and New Mexico, and they would go on to capture the NAIA District 2 title and play in the national tournament in Kansas City.

“Coach Yagi has been an inspirational figure for myself and so many of us here on the Big Island,” says Kaniela Aiona, current Vulcan men’s basketball head coach. “He touched so many lives. His impact on this community will never be forgotten.”

“I was so honored to have had Coach Yagi in my life. He was my coach and later a coaching colleague, mentor and friend,” says Joey Estrella, former longtime UH Hilo baseball head coach. “Words cannot describe what he meant to me and the influence he had on my life in the most positive way. I will be forever grateful. Every time we worked together, he made me feel special. He was a pleasure to be around and influenced so many people. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten.”

Helping develop the UH Hilo athletics program

A young Jimmy Yagi pictured
Jimmy Yagi (Photo courtesy of UH Hilo Athletics)

Yagi began his coaching career as an assistant to Ramon Goya, who would later become the athletic director when Yagi took over as head coach. Yagi and Goya were instrumental in helping develop the UH Hilo athletics program and guiding its success in the NAIA as well as establishing the popular Vulcans Hawai‘i Basketball School.

“A businessman turned coach, Jimmy found his real passion in coaching and teaching basketball,” Goya says. “His dedication and commitment to basketball is second to none. For Jimmy, coaching went far beyond winning and losing. His genuine care and personal relationship with each individual made him special and led him to an accomplished and illustrious career. Basketball became his tool to teach life’s skills to his players and the youth in his clinics.”

For six decades, Yagi led camps across the islands in what is now called the Jimmy Yagi Basketball Camp. Thousands of young players benefited from those positive gatherings, learning about basketball and life.

Bill O’Rear, who played for Yagi in the late 1970s and went on to a long career as the sports editor at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, says, “Coach Yagi told his fellow camp coaches: ‘We teach everybody’s children whether they can play basketball or not. It’s all about teaching them the fundamentals of basketball and life. If we can help them believe a little more in themselves, hopefully it will carry on into other areas.’”

Yagi is a 1957 graduate of the UH Mānoa Shidler College of Business. A scholar-athlete himself, Yagi played basketball for UH Mānoa.

The Yagi legacy lives on

The Yagi family established the Coach Jimmy Yagi Scholarship at UH Hilo. “Sports can be such an important part of a student’s education, but working to achieve academic excellence is also critically important,” Yagi once said. “We believe Vulcan Athletics can help bring new focus to academic excellence and help to raise standards on campus at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.”

Coach Yagi and his wife Jeanne also established the James S. and Kameko Yagi/Sadao and Bessie Y. Nishida Scholarship in honor of their parents, to benefit Hawai‘i Island high school graduates attending UH Hilo. They were involved in many community civic groups and served as volunteers for many local organizations.

Yagi leaves behind wife Jeanne and sons Brady and Kirby. Memorial services will be announced at a later time.

-Media release from UH Hilo Athletics via UH System News.