In 2002, James Li joined the Wildcat track and field coaching staff to direct the distance runners and men's and women's cross country program. He came from Washington State University, where he worked with the Cougar track and field and cross country programs for a combined total of 13 years. He received a master's degree from WSU in 1987 and a doctorate in 1993.
Li was named the 2007 Nike Coach of the Year by USA Track and Field after coaching Bernard Lagat to a history-making performance at the 2007 World Outdoor Championships. Lagat, the brother of current UA distance runner Irine Lagat, became the first American in history to win both the 1,500m and 5,000m runs and did so under Li's tutelage. Lagat also broke the American record earlier in 2007 in the 3,000m run. Lagat's performance in the 1,500m at the World Championships was the first gold medal for an American in the event at that particular meet and first American gold medal in the event since the 1908 Olympics.
Li has previous coaching experience at the Sichuan Sports Technique Institute in Sichuan, China. He was also a provincial team coach from 1983 to 1985. He joined the Washington State coaching staff in 1985 as a graduate assistant. He served as the head men's track and field coach at Minnesota State University at Mankato from 1990 to 1994. He then rejoined the Washington State staff in 1994 as a track and field assistant. He was named the head cross country coach in 1998.
Li, a native of the People's Republic of China, was a middle distance runner during his youth and collegiate days at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, from which he graduated in 1982. He won the Chinese collegiate 800 meters title in 1979 and was among the top 10 middle distance runners in China in 1980 and 1982.
During his collegiate coaching career, Li has coached numerous individual athletes and relay teams to more than 30 conference championships, 50 All-American honors, and 9 national championships. Behind Li's guidance, Cougar distance great Bernard Lagat was named NCAA Division I indoor athlete of the year and Pac-10 athlete of the year in 1999. Lagat also won the bronze medal in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, as well as a silver medal at the 2001 IAAF World Championships.
During his college career under Coach Li, former Wildcat distance standout Robert Cheseret broke three school records, won ten conference individual titles (track and cross country) and was been named the Pac-10 Athlete of the Year twice in cross country and three times in track and field.
Li was born in Chengdu, China and was naturalized as a United States citizen in May of 1998. He and his wife, Jeane, have two sons, Allen and Anthony.