Commentary

Layer quickly returns to a familiar spot

Originally Published: June 25, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

It was not the ideal time to try to sell a house, but basketball coaches don't have the luxury of considering fluctuating real estate markets when there's a job to be had.

So in May 2008, as the housing market continued its plunge, Dale Layer and his family packed up their things, stuck the for-sale sign in the lawn outside their Lynchburg, Va., home and moved to Wisconsin.

Layer, an assistant under Ritchie McKay at Liberty University, had signed on as Buzz Williams' assistant at Marquette.

Eleven months later, the for-sale sign was still in the front lawn when Layer stepped off a plane after a recruiting trip to Minneapolis. He flipped on his phone and listened to his messages.

What he heard stunned him. After three years, McKay had bolted from Liberty to take an assistant coaching job at Virginia. Layer knew immediately what that meant: He at least had a shot at the now-open head-coaching job at Liberty.

[+] EnlargeDale Layer
AP Photo/Jake SchoellkopfIn 2003, Dale Layer led Colorado State to the MWC tourney title and its first NCAA berth in 13 years.

"I called my wife and said, 'I have news for you,"' Layer said. "And before I could tell her she said, 'So do I. We just got an offer on the house.' Then I told her my news and she just said, 'Oh my. I think your news is better than mine."'

The Layers never did sell their house. Instead, they moved back into it.

Dale Layer was named the new head coach at Liberty on April 8.

"I've been sleeping on a mattress, no fork, no knife, no Internet," Layer said. "I'm basically living like a caveman."

Layer hasn't exactly had time for redecorating. The peaceful mid-major program he left a year ago was nothing shy of reeling by the time he returned to campus. In the span of seven days, Liberty lost its head coach and its star power, when Seth Curry, Stephen's little brother, decided to transfer to Duke. Curry was the nation's leading scorer among freshmen last season (20.2 ppg). His transfer had been rumored, but McKay's move came from nowhere.

Mix in the graduation of second-leading scorer Anthony Smith (17.6 ppg) and the Flames, just days removed from a 23-11 season, were in shock.

"They were stunned -- that's probably the best word," Layer said. "It was a very emotional time when I got here. We really had to settle everyone down and let them know everything was going to be OK."

Layer's calming influence and his familiarity with Liberty were the reasons athletic director Jeff Barber immediately moved his former assistant to the top of his wish list. Recognizing how unsettled the team was, Barber knew this wasn't the time to give someone his first head-coaching experience. Layer spent seven years leading Colorado State, where he led the Rams to a near-victory over Duke in the 2003 NCAA tournament. As he is in Lynchburg, Layer replaced McKay at CSU, as well.

Every bit as important as his head-coaching experience, though, was Layer's understanding of Liberty. The faith-based institution founded by Jerry Falwell isn't for everyone, including some players and coaches. Barber felt strongly he needed someone who not only understood the challenges of selling Liberty to future players, but also the benefits.

Barber likened Liberty to an experience he had while working at Furman. He took a job there in 1996 and because of the scorching South Carolina heat searched for a house with a swimming pool. Realtors told Barber and his wife they were fools, that they'd never resell their house if it had a swimming pool because no one bought houses with swimming pools in that area.

"Our house sold in days. We had people lining up because it had a swimming pool," he said. "My point being, our house wasn't for everybody, but for the people who wanted a swimming pool, it was the only choice. That's Liberty. It's not for everyone, but there are a group of people searching for a school like this. Our job is to make it the best it can be."

Barber minces no words when he offers his expectations: He wants Liberty to become a perennial top-20 team in the model of Gonzaga. He points to the program's 8,000-seat Vines Center that comes complete with chair-back seating, waiter service in some seats and professional video boards as signs that this is a mid-major school with major league appeal.

"It can be done because we're unique … we have a unique niche," he said. "We have that house with the pool."

Told of his athletic director's expectations, Layer wasn't the least bit daunted. He has the same aspirations, he said.

He might not reach them right away. Without Smith and Curry, Layer is left with a roster stuffed with inexperience: 11 sophomores and freshmen make up the bulk of the team.

He's added some name panache. Evan Gordon, younger brother of former Indiana phenom and current Los Angeles Clipper Eric Gordon, will join Liberty this season. Gordon's father, Eric Sr., played at Liberty, scoring more than 1,000 points in three seasons. He also met his wife there.

"The downside is they're young," said Layer, who as McKay's assistant had a hand in recruiting most of his roster. "But the upside is they're young. These are the guys who are going to carry us and build that foundation."

A foundation, Layer hopes, that will be strong enough to survive any housing market.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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