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Gem of a Coach Toils in Relative Obscurity at Cal State Dominguez Hills

February 16, 1989|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

The glare from television camera lights reflected off Dave Yanai's glasses as the Cal State Dominguez Hills basketball coach, neatly dressed in a tweed jacket, was questioned by reporters after a victory at Cal State Bakersfield.

Success has come often for Yanai's teams, but the media rush--such as this one in the hallway of the Civic Auditorium in the southern San Joaquin Valley town--is as uncommon as snow in Los Angeles.

Despite two decades of success as a high school and college coach in the shadow of media-rich downtown Los Angeles, the man Coach Bobby Knight of Indiana calls "a great coach" has toiled virtually anonymously.

Yanai has been at Dominguez Hills for 12 years. Some locals refer to the Division II school as "Cal State Carson," and that makes it difficult to attract top-notch athletic talent.

Only One of His Kind

Yanai is the only Japanese-American college coach in the United States and has been rewarded several times as one of the best at his trade. Twice he was named Coach of the Year in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., and once in the Division II Western Region.

Conversations over the years with coaches paint a picture of Yanai as a humble, hard-working and above-board teacher of basketba ll, "a coach's coach with no gimmicks," according to former UC Berkeley Coach Pete Newell.

Adds Knight: "There isn't a greater guy around."

Newell considers Yanai a well-kept secret: "Dave could compete in any conference in any part of the country with less talent than the rest (of the teams in the league), and he would win."

Said his wife of 23 years, Sae, who washed team uniforms when Yanai was at Fremont High School so her husband could use laundry funds to buy much-needed jerseys for his players: "Dave just loves to coach. Always has."

Players Are Motivated

Yanai's record at Dominguez Hills of 181-133 is not of mythical proportions. At Fremont High, he fared better (120-31). According to his peers, he gets every ounce of performance out of his players. Many, Yanai admits, are "flawed." But his teams are so prepared that they often win when on paper they shouldn't have bothered to show up. Many losses have gone down to the wire.

He operates on a shoestring budget that includes less than three full-time scholarships a year. Walk-on players often start.

"Dominguez Hills has a reputation," said Gardena Councilman Mas Fukai, an associate of Yanai's. "It is hard to recruit athletes. Still, these young men are great individuals when he is done with them."

A reporter usually turns up a skeleton or two in the closet. Yanai's closet is bare, except for the accolades. Friends describe him as intense and caring, sincere and knowledgeable.

"If you have anything (worthwhile as a person) inside of you, he will bring it out," said Sam Sullivan, who played for Yanai and now coaches basketball at Fremont.

Associates say Yanai is Kojin Butsu , a nice, honorable guy, with life's priorities in the right order.

"He is not in the mainstream. You don't read much about him, but he is one of the real teachers of basketball," Newell said.

Yanai has been instrumental in the Japanese-American community. He plays host to free youth camps in Gardena and Orange County several times a year and conducts them with the same vigor of practice sessions at Dominguez Hills. At one of those camps, said Yanai's nephew, Harvey Kitani, basketball coach at Fairfax High, "Yanai worked me so hard I came out of it feeling dizzy."

Explained Newell: "He has so many things going for him. He is a giver, not a taker."

Success has usually come with little fanfare at Dominguez Hills. Two years ago, when the Toros won a second CCAA title under Yanai with a last-minute victory over UC Riverside, there was not a reporter in attendance. In a 1988 Sports Illustrated story, former Toro Sports Information Director Steve Barr complained that he left the school in part because he was frustrated at being associated with a winning basketball program that received very little publicity.

Newell suggests that a measure of a coach's ability is in the homage paid by other coaches, as in Yanai's selection as CCAA Coach of the Year last season when his team finished fourth and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

"He's a gem," Cal Poly Pomona Coach Dave Bollwinkle said.

"If a player can't get along with Yanai, he can't get along with anyone," Biola University Coach Dave Holmquist said.

"He's some kind of a coach," said Coach John Masi at UC Riverside, which beat Dominguez Hills by a single point in January.

Newell says you will seldom find a group of coaches who think that way about an opponent, but he thinks he knows why Yanai is so highly regarded: "He has his priorities right. Players and academics first. There aren't a lot of coaches today interested in that part."

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