Jimmye Laycock settled into a light green armchair, in the office he designed himself, in the football facility that bears his name, and sighed. It was the Tuesday before the finale of his 37th season as head coach at William & Mary, and he wanted to clear something up right away.
“Well, I’m not retiring, and this isn’t a farewell tour,” he said. “So I don’t really know what to tell you.”
On Saturday, Laycock’s Tribe will host rival Richmond to end a disappointing season. A losing record — the Tribe is 4-6 heading into the matchup with the 8-2 Spiders — isn’t what’s become expected from the man who inherited a program that had won six or more games just four times in the preceding 25 years and then produced 24 winning seasons, five conference championships and 10 Football Championship Subdivision playoff berths since.
But for all the change he has brought about at William & Mary football, Laycock has settled into his rhythms. Little will differ this offseason. He will golf when he can and spend some time with his four children and two grandchildren. He will plan for the next season, sparing little thought as to what life would be like were he to join the majority of his close friends in the coaching business and retire.
No one would blame him for wondering. Laycock, 68, is the longest-tenured active coach in Division I football, which consists of the FCS and the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
As Frank Beamer, a friend of Laycock from their days as assistants at The Citadel in the 1970s, said recently, “Jimmye’s a bit of an institution now.”
“I think Jimmye is a guy that has what he always wanted, coaching at his alma mater,” said Beamer, who is in his first year of retirement after 29 seasons leading Virginia Tech. “It’s a wonderful place to live, and he’s very satisfied with that. He’s been able to do a great job for a number of years, and I think it kinda just worked out just right for him. You know, he’s always had a good feel for football, and he still does. I’m not really surprised he’s still there.”
A 1970 graduate of William & Mary who played quarterback under Marv Levy and Lou Holtz, Laycock left an assistant’s post at Clemson just as the going was getting good in the late ’70s to take the head job at his alma mater.
Laycock jokes now about the facilities he inherited. He had to bus the 44 players he had at his first spring practice over to a field that sat across from a mental hospital. Back then, he told his coaching staff that the occasional unexpected visitors were just impassioned alumni. They played in a stadium completed in 1935 with grant funds from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. The practice field did not have lights.
“Five-three-seven,” Laycock managed, almost out of breath from laughing so hard. “Do you know what that was? 5:37 p.m. was the latest we could go at practice after daylight savings time before it got pitch-black dark. All we could do was punt.”
Laycock started winning regardless, recruiting hard in talent-rich southeast Virginia while adhering to his university’s rigorous academic standards. A native of Loudoun County “back when it was dairy farms, not wineries,” he says with a chuckle, and the son of a schoolteacher mother, the educator in Laycock shone through just as much as the football technician did.
“The first part of the conversation was always the academic conversation,” said Todd Stottlemyer, chief executive of Inova Center for Personalized Health and a member of Laycock’s first recruiting class. “In practice and at the end of the season, the first thing was always ‘Well, how are you doing in school?’ If you had a lab during spring football practice, you missed spring football practice.”
In 1986, Laycock had his first nine-win season and reached the Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs for the first time. In 1996, the Tribe won its first conference championship. By then, William & Mary’s native son had set the foundation for a legacy.
His former players include Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin; J.D. Gibbs, co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing; and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. When they return to say hello nowadays, they note how the gruff Laycock they knew has become much more mild-mannered.
A good bit of tenacity was once required, in Laycock’s view, to build success in a tough environment.
Not that he didn’t have the opportunity to leave. The most famous instance was in 1990, when Laycock accepted the head coaching job at Boston College. He was living in a townhouse in Williamsburg with his wife and newborn son Michael when, he recalls with another heavy sigh, the lure of money finally wore him down.
A plane ticket had been delivered and the news conference had been scheduled when Laycock called Chet Gladchuk, Boston College’s athletic director at the time, and told him never mind.
“I started to pack to get ready, and I wasn’t excited about what I was gonna wear,” Laycock said. “And that’s unusual for me; that was a telltale sign for me when I said, ‘I really don’t care what the crap I wear for this press conference.’ Deep down in my heart I knew I was taking the job for the wrong reasons, for the financial implications of it as opposed to what I really, really wanted to do.”
When news spread in Williamsburg that he might be leaving, Laycock received scores of letters. Lingering guilt kept him from opening a single one, even to this day. He keeps them away in a box somewhere.
Remaining at William & Mary allowed Laycock to focus on coaching without the added responsibilities of bigger programs. Winning there afforded facilities that once were unimaginable.
Fundraising for a new football complex began after Laycock took the Tribe to the Division I-AA semifinals in 2004. He asked only for a dedicated parking spot. The university went further, naming the $11 million, 30,000-square-foot, privately funded facility the Jimmye Laycock Football Center. It was finished just before the 2008 season, and Laycock doesn’t think he’s ever said its name out loud in public.
Before this season, with the 2015 Colonial Athletic Association co-title still fresh on fans’ minds, a $27 million renovation of adjoining Zable Stadium was completed.
The facilities mean Laycock no longer has to request classrooms ahead of time when he wants a full team meeting. That has made things easier for a man nearing his fifth decade as head coach. So has shifting to a CEO-type position in the program. Watching film and calling plays every week got to be too much a few years ago, and Laycock has learned to delegate.
“I don’t like it,” Laycock said. “But I do it, because I feel like it’s the best for the program.”
He still gives speeches about accountability and behavior standards, and he still deals personally with disciplinary issues. His players, the bond he creates with them, is one of the things that keeps him from retirement.
But it’s not the most important thing. What keeps him around most, Laycock says, is the same gut feeling that led him to call Boston College’s athletic director at 5 a.m. He’s just not ready to leave.
“I don’t know when it’ll hit me that I’ll feel like it’s time. I’ve thought about it, but I’m not ready,” Laycock said. “There’s games to be played and opportunities to win, and that’s good enough right now.”