By Kyle Koso
According to the schedule, teams coached by Dale Layer and Buzz Williams will lock horns during the 2014 Cancun Challenge.
But if Williams got locked out of his house, Layer would be the guy carrying the extra key. And while both coaches spare no effort on the X’s and O’s, Williams would be the first friend there should Layer need help with the spare tire.
Through all the address changes, roster turmoil, athletic department dramas and recruiting-trail restaurant regrets, Layer and Williams have been able to count each other as true allies in the mad scramble of NCAA D-I men’s basketball. As the 2014-15 season approaches the starting line, Layer is in his sixth year as head coach at Liberty University (Big South Conference); Williams is set for his debut as head coach at Virginia Tech (ACC) after six seasons running the show at Marquette. Liberty plays at Virginia Tech on Nov. 19 in one of the US-based games of the Cancun Challenge.
The two campuses sit not even two hours apart, so Layer and Williams can actually see each other when their schedules break the right direction. The connection dates back to the four years (2001-04) where Williams served as an assistant on Layer’s staff at Colorado State; Williams brought Layer aboard for one season at Marquette before Layer exited in 2009 to take the helm at Liberty.
“Buzz is one of my dearest friends. Now, I’m not looking very forward to playing their team, but for Liberty to be playing Virginia Tech is a positive, no matter the sport. I know a lot of folks are looking forward to it, but I’ve got mixed emotions,” Layer said. “I know we will see each other in Cancun, and practices or other places, and that should be fun.
“The relationship we have is a great value. He’s taught me a lot, and I admire him – he’s worked for me and I’ve worked for him, and it’s a personal relationship more than anything. We’re about an hour and a half apart, so I can scoot over there if possible. One of his sons came to a camp of ours this summer, and he stayed at our house all week.”
Williams is equally conflicted about the Nov. 19 matchup and nearly pulled the plug on the idea of the Cancun Challenge because of his mixed feelings playing a close friend. He even joked about changing shirts and swapping benches during the game, just to detach from the awkwardness of the moment.
But the tournament fit the schedule correctly, and in taking over a team that has finished last in the ACC for three straight years and not seen the NCAA Tournament since 2007, Virginia Tech had to button down something useful.
“I don’t look forward to it, and we almost didn’t play for that reason. I can’t quantify enough the impact coach Layer has had on my life personally and professionally,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to advance in my career, post-Colorado State, without his tutelage.
“Coach is the best human being I’ve known who is also a coach; he’s left a huge imprint on my heart and my resume. He’s made me a better parent, a better spouse … there are a lot of stories within the story.”
Indeed, both coaches have experienced highlight-packed runs as well as sobering weeks where nothing goes right, as alumni and the sports press either jump on the bandwagon or jump on their necks. Together in 2003, Layer and Williams saw CSU win the postseason Mountain West Conference tournament to put the Rams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 seasons, but Layer was not brought back after his contract expired in 2007.
Williams had a lot of success at Marquette, reaching the Elite Eight in 2013, but changes on the hoops landscape convinced him the more stable history of the ACC made it a better bet for his long-term security.
“With all the AD’s (changing out) and the turmoil at CSU, Coach couldn’t have represented CSU any better. Obviously we’ve talked about that,” Williams said. “And in leading up to me taking this job, he was the only coach I talked to in that four- or five-day period. He’s where he’s supposed to be and is at peace with that, and I’m where I’m supposed to be, and I’m at peace with that. I’m way closer to Coach now than I was when I worked for him.”
“It’s good to have friends in the profession, who have gone through similar situations,” Layer added. “I’ve talked with Buzz about everything, from the profession to family, what he’s reading, what church he goes to, his camps – it’s very valuable.”
When it comes to the product on the floor, both coaches are trying to embrace the positives and resolutely work on the obvious areas of concern. Liberty will be looking to groom a large number of newcomers to the program, but Layer’s teams have a way of playing their sharpest by the time March rolls around.
In 2012-13, the Flames started out 0-8 but came around to win the Big South tournament and slip into the NCAA field.
“Everybody loves their team this time of year, but you have to go through some adversity to know what you have. I feel our team is much better than what people think, but you have to go through it,” said Layer, whose team was picked ninth in the Big South preseason poll. “Our league is very balanced, typically, and I think Liberty has the DNA to be a championship team. But there are eight or nine other teams in the league that are saying that now.
“We do have three starters back, so there’s a solid nucleus that has been around the block. And we have an influx of fresh talent, and I see us as more talented than we’ve been – we’re longer and more athletic. James Johnson will be key – he’s played at a high level at San Diego State, he’s got the confidence and the maturity, and the fact he’s 6-10 also helps.”
For Virginia Tech, Williams has as much emotional repair to do with his roster as there are new schemes to concoct. Analytics and pie charts showing the Hokies’ statistical command may not be a big concern.
He has a seven-year contract in his back pocket to provide the elbow room needed to grow the program, but the merciless ACC schedule will offer up a hefty headwind at the start.
“I can be too numbers-centric. But since I don’t know exactly where we are at, because we haven’t played a game yet and have had just two weeks of practice … it’s hard for me to gauge what those numbers should be,” Williams said. “I know the standard in my mind, but is that the way we should play? Are those appropriate numbers for this team? I’m trying to learn the nuances, and how we play does give us the best chance to win – I’ve just never played that way before.
“There’s a lot to overcome as it relates to what these kids have been through. They want to work and want to be coached, so there’s something to be said for that. Hey, all we want to do right now is work hard, play tough, get better today and do all that again tomorrow.”
It will only add to the number of stories Williams and Layer can file in their library.