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Publish date: Mar 10, 2011

This article appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Champion magazine.

Drawing from scratch at the Academy of Art University

By Gary Brown


Academy of Art University in San Francisco athletics director Jamie Williams.

Jamie Williams had just been offered the job as director of athletics at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He didn’t know it was coming. He had no reason to since he wasn’t even applying. The then-76-year-old academy didn’t even have an athletics program.

But here he was in August 2005 having dinner at a restaurant with academy President Elisa Stephens, the granddaughter of the school’s founder, who asked the former Nebraska All-America tight end and Super Bowl champion to build athletics from scratch at a school more familiar with drawing caricatures than crowds.

Williams paused and said he would do it on two conditions. One was that the position would report to her, and the other was that she couldn’t blink because, as Williams told her, “it’s going to be a crazy journey.”

Stephens looked Williams in the eyes and said, “I’m not blinking.”

Looking back five years later, Williams likes to call the journey “nonlinear.” Stephens, meanwhile, hasn’t blinked.

“At that meeting with Jamie,” Stephens said from the famous Big 4 Restaurant near her residence on Nob Hill, “I very directly told him the mission of our school and what I am tasked with, and that we can’t be taken off task. We wanted to expand and include athletics because we saw that it would make our students better artists and that it would make us a better school.”

Those aspirations have become real.

A school with a soul.

Richard S. Stephens, who founded the Academy of Art in 1929, was about to sell the school after World War II but decided to first check with his son Richard A. Stephens, who was attending Stanford at the time. The son protested, saying that the buyer “had no soul.” Read more.

The Academy of Art, which nurtures 18,000 aspiring artists in a “campus” spread among 40 historic buildings throughout downtown San Francisco, is in candidacy year two of the Division II membership process and in year three of sponsoring intercollegiate athletics at all. The school’s first application for NCAA membership in 2007, in fact, was turned down because there was no program to evaluate. 

“We certainly were unique,” said Williams, who was unique in his own right in the late 1970s as the only Cornhusker player on the team to balance the rigors of football with a demanding broadcast journalism curriculum. “I don’t think there had been a program that wanted to be an NCAA member without ever having played a game.”

Now, if all goes well, the Pacific West Conference member could be an active Division II member within the next couple of years.

Williams, a confident and charismatic tower of a man with an Ed.D. in organization and leadership, is the one with his foot on the gas. Stephens, an articulate visionary who took the academy’s presidential baton from her father in 1992, gave Williams the car – a 14-sport model that is being asked to go from 0 to 60 up the severely slanting San Francisco hills a la Steve McQueen in the 1968 thriller “Bullitt.”

Their passengers are a bunch of artists. To Williams, though, these sculpted soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball and track athletes are “warrior-poets” capable of designing wins and winning designs.

“We are here as a destination for athletes who are artists and who compete at high levels as athletes,” said the man who established the school’s slogan: “Be Artist. Be Athlete.”

“For me, it’s be artist first, and then be athlete, because if you embrace your creativity as an artist, you’re going to be creative as an athlete,” he said.

Right now, those creative athletes are drawing up victories. Women’s volleyball was over .500 this season. The men’s soccer team was 7-7 in PacWest play, including a 1-0 overtime thriller that knocked rival Notre Dame de Namur out of the league playoffs. The Urban Knights placed second and third in the PacWest men’s and women’s cross country championships, respectively, including a 1-2 individual finish on the men’s side. Men’s basketball, after an 0-26 season in 2009-10, defeated Division I UC Davis in an exhibition contest in November and battled Upper Iowa three weeks later for its first-ever regular-season win.

“I love it when people say, ‘Man, you just got beat by a bunch of artists,’ ” Williams said.

He’s hearing it a lot these days.

No  ‘there’  there


Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

It’s perhaps remarkable – and certainly circumstantial – that Williams is hearing it at all. Though he was familiar with sports, both as a collegian and as a professional, Williams hadn’t been an assistant AD or an associate AD or even a coach before Stephens asked him to start at the top.

In fact, the man who had collaborated with Oliver Stone on the film “Any Given Sunday” was trying to produce a screen play of his own about a love-smitten football player when Stephens came calling.

Buddies Kevin Anderson (then the AD at Army, now the AD at Maryland) and Tom Bowen (still the San Jose State AD) told Williams that his name had come up in discussions about a start-up athletics program at the academy. They knew he was a leader who understood the creative process, as well.

“You should call her,” they told him. But they didn’t say anything about a job. So Williams didn’t call because he was still engrossed with his film. Stephens called him, but he didn’t reply. Then Bowen pleaded with Williams to meet with her. Williams eventually called and set up dinner.

Stephens met him without an entourage – just the two of them. She knew who Williams was because he was still in the public eye doing the San Francisco 49ers pregame show and some other TV spots. They talked a little football and shared a few Joe Montana stories. They talked a little film, too. She asked what he knew about the university. He said, “Not much.” She said, “Can we do athletics?” He said, “What do you mean, like intramurals?” She said, “No, like Cal, Stanford and those guys.”

“She said, ‘I want to beat other schools,’ ” Williams recalled. “She didn’t say, ‘I want to play other schools.’ That’s what got me excited because she was in it not just to have a sports program but to have a competitive sports program. That kind of undercurrent resonates with student-athletes. They don’t just want to go somewhere and play. They want to compete to be the best.”

Williams knew what that took at a place like Nebraska, but he had to create it in a West Coast city not known for college sports.

“Not only did the academy have no athletics legacy, it had no athletics identity,” he said. “There was no ‘there’ there. In the beginning, several people kind of laughed about it and thought we would just go away. Well, I was serious, and I knew my boss was serious. There was some resistance internally, usually from people who didn’t know much about me or athletics. Why are we doing this? We don’t need it; it won’t work here. Externally, it was more curiosity and humor.”

Colleagues at the first NCAA Convention that Williams attended certainly chuckled. Who’s going to coach for you, they said. Who’s going to play you? Who’s going to play for you?

“But there was a handful of others who thought it was a unique opportunity and that it could be successful,” he said. “They were citing former student-athletes who wanted to pursue the arts but couldn’t do it at their institutions because athletics took up all the time.”

Upon further review, Williams said recruiting has actually been the easiest part of the process.

“We are turning away athletes,” he said. “And I thought it would be that way. While I was this creative guy at Nebraska, it didn’t stop me from being a decent football player – and I knew I couldn’t be the only one out there. There is an ocean of athletes who want to play collegiately, and we only want a few of them. When we go into this ocean, there has to be a subset of athletes who say, ‘You know, I really want to be a graphic designer like my grandfather or grandmother, but I also happen to be able to knock home runs.’

“We’re not looking to change artists into athletes – we’re looking for that kid who says either I have this passion for art and I don’t want to give it up, or I’m curious about art and I’m willing to learn. And yes, you can win contests with those kids.”

The first brush strokes

Just as in any creative process, Williams began with a blank slate. “I had no one on the staff but me,” he said. Working with Stephens and others, the academy assembled an ambitious but manageable list of sports to offer: men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s outdoor track, men’s and women’s golf, baseball, softball, women’s volleyball and women’s tennis. Sports like football and swimming didn’t make sense fiscally and logistically, but that could change down the road, Williams said.

Next was athletics affiliation. Williams considered the NAIA, but that association doesn’t accept for-profit schools like the academy. Meanwhile, NCAA Divisions I and III had membership moratoriums in place, which left Division II. Not only was Division II the lone option, Williams said it was the best.

“The DII model is all about life in the balance,” he said, referring to the division’s recent student-centered campaign. “Creating warrior-poets is about life in the balance, too. To me, life in the balance means that you have more than one passion – you have multiple things to make your life complete. We as an institution cater to that.”


Men’s soccer coach Dan Rosaia extols his club after dispatching PacWest rival Notre Dame de Namur. When the squad gathered moments later for a team photo, Athletics Director Jamie Williams made each player step forward and state his major.

Then Williams went looking for a conference. While the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and the California Collegiate Athletic Association were options, the PacWest offered better circumstances. The PacWest was reforming after losing Western New Mexico and Montana State Billings to slip below the six-member minimum required to be an official conference.

So the PacWest actually courted the academy to join recently added Notre Dame de Namur, Dixie State and Dominican (California) in creating a resurgent nine-member league. Other PacWest members are Grand Canyon, Hawaii Hilo, Chaminade, Brigham Young-Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific.

After that, Williams needed personnel.

“I didn’t have the budget to throw a lot of money at coaches,” he said. “And to convince an already established coach or administrator to come to an art school where we don’t have an existing program, we don’t have a legacy and we’ve never played a game – they would wonder if I needed to be drug-tested.

“I knew I had to take a chance on some young talent and hope there was enough passion, commitment and humility for these people to grow.”

They included men’s soccer coach Dan Rosaia, a former high school coach who earned an interview with Williams by taking a student-run club team in the lowest division of the city league to the championship game in the top division in a little over a year. Now, he’s the 2010 PacWest coach of the year.

Women’s basketball coach Lindsey Yamasaki was a star player at Stanford from 1998 to 2002 and played pro ball for four years before coaching a few high school and club basketball and volleyball teams. Williams said, “Are you interested in making some history?” Turns out she was. “I wanted to break some of the stereotypes placed on art students,” she said.

As for administrators, Williams needed operations experience first because the academy didn’t have its own athletics facilities. “We needed to figure out the basics of how to stage a practice or a game,” he said. Assistant AD Colin Preston handles that function now.

The city-owned Kezar Pavilion (known for roller derby’s Bay Bombers in the 1970s) serves as the Urban Knights’ basketball and volleyball gym, and Boxer Stadium hosts academy soccer matches. Academy golfers are fortunate to play on the beautiful and historic Presidio Golf Course near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then Williams needed a compliance person to put processes in place to make the academy a viable NCAA program. Senior Woman Administrator Stephanie Strowbridge filled the bill.

“We did everything we could to get up to speed at light speed,” Williams said. “The most difficult thing is creating institutional control. What does that mean? You can’t go at it reluctantly – it’s a vital part of our athletics success. Everyone on campus has to buy in – it can’t just be athletics.”

Other cogs in the wheel were Allison Magner, the assistant AD for marketing, and Williams’ assistant Meghan Bushnell, a former lacrosse player at California.

Williams is confident that his program will satisfy the NCAA as it seeks to become an active member. Williams said the membership process has been “very fair and valuable for us in that it has provided the blueprint for what we need to do to be successful.”

“We understand what it means to have the blue disk behind us,” he said. “Is the NCAA stringent? Absolutely, but our goal is to be a model of that. The NCAA is all about the student-athlete experience, and I am all about that, too, because I know what it meant in my life.”


The artist-athlete

Academy of Art University basketball practice.

If the juxtaposition of art and athletics seems odd, Williams said it isn’t. Most people perceive artists as a relatively small group of “outliers.” But athletes are a small population, too.

“Those two groups are actually more mutually inclusive than exclusive,” he said. “The same kind of fundamentals and tenacity that makes you a great artist makes you a great athlete. But if you haven’t been on the inside of that, you aren’t aware of it. As a culture, we’re moved and defined by myths and stereotypes, and it takes some brainpower to get beyond it. When you finally see it in reality, it’s an ‘ah ha’ moment.”

President Stephens had her “ah ha” right away.

“I didn’t realize how big and healthy these kids were going to be, and that when they come in, they can take a punch,” she said. “That resilience and discipline and strength of character – and the fact that they already can manage their time and keep themselves healthy – that’s what we work to instill in our students who are not used to taking care of themselves or aren’t as proficient in time management – or they come from a place where they’ve not had to perform like they do when they are here.

“But the artist-athlete already has a strong sense of those things coming in, so they are leading by example in the classrooms. I like that.”

Williams said “it’s been interesting” to see artist-athletes thrive and understand that what they’re doing is OK.

“A misconception many people have is that somehow we’re going to take regular artists and convert them – put muscle and speed and skill on them. That’s not even close to the case,” he said. “Our recruited athletes are all-state, all-region, all-county, and they just happen to want to design buildings.

“Usually, if you’re going to go to a Texas, Ohio State or Nebraska, you almost have to give up that other passion. But here at the academy, I have 215 kids who are doing both quite well.”

In addition to being a viable NCAA athletics program, a model Division II ambassador, a competitive PacWest member and eventually a championship contender, Williams wants his “warrior-poets” to graduate and to win in life.

“That’s where I come from,” he said. “Create momentum, take a quantum leap and become something of value. You have to teach that. If we can win as artists, then the statement becomes even bigger for what we are creating.”