WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Jimmye Laycock had just finished the 441st pregame talk of his college football coaching career and was pacing near the door of the William & Mary locker room, repeatedly glancing up at the digital clock above the door. He paused for a moment and looked outside, where the tunnel leading to the field inside Zable Stadium was lined with high school players and their families.
Seeing them, Laycock turned and walked back inside the locker room.
“Turn the music off,” he ordered.
“Listen up, guys,” he said. “There are a bunch of kids standing in the tunnel. I don’t want to hear any profanity when we go out on the field.”
Laycock will never coach any of the youngsters who were standing in the tunnel. Neither they nor their families will ever know that he cared enough to tell his players to tone down the words that are so much a part of football locker rooms.
That didn’t matter to Laycock.
“All you can do,” he said as he followed his players onto the field, “is be yourself and do what you think is right.”
Laycock has done that for 39 years at William & Mary, longer than anyone in college football has coached his alma mater. The Tribe’s come-from-behind, 25-22 victory over Albany on Saturday was Laycock’s 247th win since he took over a struggling program in 1980. Five weeks from this coming Saturday, he will walk off the sideline for the final time.
And even as the days tick down to that finale, almost no one in his life can quite believe it.
“I don’t think any of us have completely come to grips with the idea of him not coaching,” his daughter Mimi said. “It’s been his life — it’s been our life forever. When he called to tell me, I cried. All four of us [Laycock’s children] cried.
“But now, when I think of it, I realize he deserves it. He has other things he wants to do, and I’m so happy for him that he’s healthy enough that he can do them.”
She stopped for a moment to cheer for a near William & Mary interception.
“He’s never liked the attention. But he loves the football. And the relationships. That will be the hardest part for him.”
Go to the beach in August. Tailgate in September. Play golf in October. Spend time with his four grown, far-flung children.
Those were the four things Laycock said he wanted to do that he had never had the chance to when he announced Aug. 5 that he was going to retire at season’s end.
But the decision to walk away crystallized in his mind Feb. 6 — the day he turned 70.
“It wasn’t as if I hadn’t thought about it before,” he said. “But it was always fleeting. There was always work to do. But when I turned 70, it occurred to me that I never thought I’d still be coaching at 70. And then there it was. I was 70 and still coaching.
“I’m healthy enough to do those things I’ve never had the chance to do. There’s new leadership at the school [new president and athletic director], so this is a good time for them to decide what direction they want to go in from here.”
He smiled. “I didn’t want to be one of those coaches who has to be dragged out, kicking and screaming.” He waved his hand around the comfortable office he designed in the football center bearing his name that opened 10 years ago. “This is a nice office. But I didn’t want to go out of here beaten up. I didn’t want to die in here.”
Laycock built a consistent winner at a school with high academic standards and, for many years, facilities that were laughable.
“I remember in 2004 when we played James Madison in the [Division I-AA] semifinals,” Laycock said. “They brought in lights so the game could be played at night on television. Then the next year, we actually got lights. Someone said, ‘Jimmye, isn’t it great, you guys have lights in the stadium!’ I said: ‘Yes, it’s fantastic. Now we’re at the same level as 95 percent of the high schools in Virginia.’ ”
He’s never been completely comfortable with walking inside every morning and seeing his name splashed across the doors leading inside.
“I just call it the football center,” he said. “It was a great honor, of course. But the best thing about it to me is I have a really good parking space.”
Jimmye Laycock — his mother added the “e” to his name to make it unique — is a lifelong jock. He won 12 letters at Loudoun Valley High: four in football, four in basketball and four in baseball.
“My first choice probably would have been basketball,” he said of his options in college. “But when football ended, that’s where the offers were.”
Laycock settled on William & Mary, where he played for Marv Levy for three years and then for Lou Holtz for one after Levy left to become an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“When I was a senior, Lou called me in and asked if maybe I didn’t want to go the coaching route full time,” Laycock said. “Get a job as a graduate assistant at the college level. I said no, my plan was to coach high school and teach.”
The plan lasted a year. Laycock got a job just down the road from Williamsburg at Newport News High. He loved coaching but didn’t love teaching. He went back to Holtz and said, “What do I do now?”
Holtz helped him land an assistant coaching job at Clemson. From there he went to work for Bobby Ross at The Citadel, then to Memphis State for two years before Charley Pell hired him as his offensive coordinator at Clemson at age 28. Three years later the William & Mary job opened.
“Turns out I was the third choice,” he said with a smile. “Bobby Ross turned it down, and so did a guy working for Bobby Bowden at Florida State named George Henshaw. That left me.”
He signed a three-year contract worth $32,000 a year. The Tribe went 2-9, 5-6 and 3-8 in Laycock’s first three seasons before it began to turn it around. William & Mary made the playoffs in Division I-AA, as the Football Championship Subdivision was then called, in 1986, then again in 1989. The following year it went 10-3, reaching the quarterfinals.
By then, Laycock had become a hot coach. He interviewed for the Duke job in 1987 before Steve Spurrier was hired and annually received calls to gauge his interest. Finally, in 1990, when Chet Gladchuk offered him a big raise to take the Boston College job, he decided it was time to move up.
“To be honest, when I first got here, I thought of this as a steppingstone job,” Laycock said. “I remember [former Auburn coach] Pat Dye telling me when I first got hired, ‘Coach every day like you’re going to be there forever and then get out first chance you get.’ ”
“Chet sent me a plane ticket for early the next morning to fly to Boston for the press conference,” Laycock said. “I packed that night, and as I was doing it, I realized I was just tossing things randomly into my suitcase as if I didn’t care what I was wearing. I never did that.
“I didn’t sleep at all. Finally, I woke up at 5 and called Chet and told him I just couldn’t do it.”
And so, even though there were other opportunities — notably when Ross offered him a job on his staff with the San Diego Chargers in 1994 — he ended up listening only to the first part of Dye’s advice.
“I would have coached in the Super Bowl if I’d said yes to Bobby,” Laycock said. “But I had four kids, and I had an obligation to them to park my ego and do what was best for them. I’ve never regretted it.”
In 2004, William & Mary had the kind of season many academic-minded schools can only dream about. The Tribe lost two regular season games — at North Carolina, 49-38, and at Delaware, ranked No. 3 in the country in I-AA, 31-28.
It advanced to the I-AA semifinals against James Madison, a team the Tribe had upset in the regular season, 27-24, on a buzzer-beating field goal. And it was one of just two teams in all of Division I that year to graduate every scholarship senior.
The quarterback on that team was Lang Campbell, who won the Walter Payton Award as the I-AA player of the year and was the Atlantic 10 scholar-athlete of the year. He, like many players who starred for Laycock, had joined the team as a walk-on.
“I realized there were always kids who got overlooked by us, by everyone,” Laycock said. “I started making a point of not recruiting to the scholarship limit so we’d have some spots open for kids who walked on to earn scholarships.”
During the winning drive in 2004 at James Madison, Campbell remembers coming to the sideline during a timeout in the final seconds and noticing that Laycock had a pill in his right ear.
“I said, ‘Coach, what the heck is that?’ ” he remembered. “He said, ‘Couldn’t hear over the noise, so the trainer gave me a vitamin to put in my ear.’ We’re both standing there cracking up with this huge game on the line.
“I’m not sure I ever saw him sweat. Get angry, sure; frustrated, yes. But sweat — no way.”
William & Mary lost that semifinal game to James Madison, which went on to the national title, but that season changed the football program forever. The permanent lights came the next season, and fundraising began for the new football building.
Among those who came to the dedication was Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, one of two former Laycock players, along with Sean McDermott of the Buffalo Bills, who are now NFL head coaches.
“He never just coached you as a football player,” Tomlin said. “He coached you as a person. He sold confidence, and he sold process, and we all believed in it and in him. I think his approach to all of us as people is a tribute to him and to his legacy.”
William & Mary made it back to the FCS semifinals in 2009, upsetting top-seeded Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals before losing, 14-13, to eventual champion Villanova. The Tribe made it back to the playoffs in 2010 and again in 2015 — its 10th appearance under Laycock.
The last two seasons have been difficult, but that wasn’t why Laycock decided this would be his last.
“We’ve always had ups and downs,” he said. “We’ll have a few good years, then a couple of down ones. It’s tough to maintain year in and year out at a place like this, and the school leadership has always understood that.
“I think I started to enjoy the job a little less when I gave up the play-calling [in 2013]. I just thought it was time, that I was doing so many other things my offensive coaches were constantly waiting for me to show up for meetings. That wasn’t fair to them. It was the right thing to do, but I’ve missed it.
“Turning 70 pretty much clinched it. But then I pulled a hamstring in the spring and couldn’t play golf for a while. I realized that, even though I’m healthy, my time to play good golf [once a 4 handicap, he’s now an 8] may be limited.”
He stared around the memorabilia-laden office for a moment. “One thing I know for sure, I’m leaving the place better than I found it. And that makes me feel good.
“That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. I’ll still be around here, and I’ll come to the games. But it’ll be a little bit like turning your family over to someone else. I’ll miss being a part of all that.”
Saturday’s victory over Albany raised the Tribe’s record to 2-3. The best player on the field was DeVonte Dedmon, a 5-foot-9-inch wide receiver who grew up in Williamsburg dreaming of playing for Laycock.
“When [Laycock] called to say they were going to offer me [a scholarship], I cried,” he said, smiling at the memory. “I first met him at a peewee football banquet when I was 8, and I’ll never forget that.”
When Dedmon thinks about Laycock, he doesn’t think first about the faith he had in him as a football player. He thinks about a meeting the two had when Dedmon was a sophomore.
“I was struggling academically,” he said. “I just wasn’t doing the job. He sat me down and said, ‘When you leave here, the rest of your life is going to be about providing for your family, about being someone your mom will be proud of. It won’t be about football.’
“I got the message. He didn’t yell or threaten. He just made his point. I love that man.”
Dedmon will graduate in the spring with a degree in kinesiology.
In the grand scheme of things, Dedmon is Laycock’s legacy. Not the wins, the championships, the building or all the coaching honors.
His legacy is the players. Several hundred of them will return to Williamsburg on Nov. 17 for Laycock’s 446th and final game as coach of the Tribe.
There will be a reception honoring them and honoring Laycock after the game. Before that, though, they will come onto the field en masse at halftime.
At that moment, Laycock will be in the locker room coaching his players up for one final half. On Tuesday, he taped a video that will play during the ceremony.
His final words say all that needs to be said. “I love it that so many of you have stayed in touch with me through all these years. I’m proud of every one of you.”
After 39 years, that’s a pretty special legacy.