Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

In the Emperor’s Shadow

In Football, William & Mary on September 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm

After back-to-back losing seasons, it looked as if Jimmye Laycock’s time as head football coach of the William and Mary Tribe was coming to an end. But reports of Laycock’s demise were greatly exaggerated. With a 3-1 record — the only blemish, a near-upset of West Virginia — the Tribe are off to their best start since 2010, a season that ended in a Colonial Athletic Association championship for the College. After the Tribe’s second round loss to Georgia Southern, CDH’s Jack Lambert wrote a retrospective on Laycock’s tenure at the College.

Originally published Dec. 3, 2010 in The Flat Hat— 

“We came in and played very, very well. We came to play, and once we started playing, we didn’t stop. We played it all the way out.”
— Jimmye Laycock after the Tribe’s Nov. 20 win against Richmond.

Is that it, you wonder? After thirty years as a head coach, are those the only words Jimmye Laycock has left? Vague, empty words?

There are questions you want to ask him. He turns 63 in February, one year older than his mother was when she retired. Did he think he would last this long? He was once the youngest head coach in the country. Does he ever think back to a time before they put his name on a building, a time when he stuffed letters for recruits by himself because it was the only way it would get done?

You want to ask these questions, but you cannot, because Laycock is a football coach. He lives in separate lifetimes broken down into minutes, quarters and halves. To ask him to remember back to a specific day would be like asking him to visit a foreign country.

So you look for meaning in his old words. Words from when he and his program were still young. Laycock may not acknowledge the empire he has built, but he was there for all of it.

It has been almost twenty years now, since he began, 9,000 miles from home, in the last days of an empire and the reemergence of a football program. The memories might have faded, but the words remain. The question is, what do they tell us about Jimmye Laycock?

“I’m not downplaying the importance of the playoffs — they’re very important. But you have this opportunity. We will be the first American team ever to play against a team of Japanese players.”
— Laycock announcing the Tribe’s participation in the 1988 Epson-Ivy Bowl in Tokyo.

Five-foot-ten quarterbacks weighing 180 pounds do not live forever. John Brosnahan knew this, so he wanted to cherish every second of his senior season. He came to Williamsburg over the summer of 1988 to work out with his teammates. Elected a team captain by his peers, it was Brosnahan who Laycock first approached with the idea of forgoing the playoffs that season in order to play in the first-ever Epson-Ivy Bowl.

“It was during summer practice that year,” Brosnahan said. “Coach Laycock talked to me and the other captain, David Whiley. He told us he wanted to share an opportunity presented to us. At that point, we were not going yet, so he put the decision in our hands.”

The game was the brainchild of Mark McCormack, a ‘51 William and Mary alum and founder of the International Management Group. McCormack saw a changing world, one with a potentially rich Asian television market. He saw American football as his way into an increasingly westernized Japanese culture.

McCormack wanted to set up a yearly exhibition between a Japanese football team and an Ivy League all-star squad. The first game would take place in Japan on Jan. 8, 1989. McCormack had only one stipulation — the first Epson-Ivy Bowl would have to include his alma mater.

“It was a cultural exchange,” Skip Miller, former sports editor of The Daily Press, said. “The purpose of it was for business and education. Football was just the conduit.”

Brosnahan and Whiley polled their fellow seniors and took a team vote. On Aug. 12 the result was announced to the press — The College would compete in the Epson-Ivy Bowl.

“Some questioned going,” Brosnahan said. “But a large majority thought it was a no-brainer. They thought this [was] great, the same way we did … It was a great opportunity and very unique. But because we couldn’t go to a postseason game, we couldn’t go to the I-AA championship. It was a hard decision.”

An entourage of 113 people, including coaches, players, trainers, reporters and cheerleaders, would make the trip. The game itself would be broadcast live on national television in Japan and on tape delay in the United States.

Eight years after he revitalized a once-dormant program, the question now was, had William and Mary done enough to make Laycock stay?

“Certainly our inexperience is a concern to us … but you need the actual game exposure. You can’t get around it.”
— Laycock before his first season as head coach at William and Mary.

He never quite fit the role of the king. Not today, with his 208 career wins. Not the day he was hired as the youngest Division I-A head coach in the country in 1979.

When you are the king, the world revolves around you, and Laycock’s world always revolved around football.
“The students knew him as the football coach,” John Newsome ’87, former Flat Hat Sports Editor, said. “He didn’t hang out on campus; you would not see him around. He just was a great coach.”

It could not have been about him. If it had been, he would have never survived those first few years. In his first season at the College, the team won two games. The following season, the Tribe went 5-6 in its last season as a Division I-A program.

The NCAA ruled in 1978 that all schools wishing to compete in the newly created Division I-A must play in stadiums seating 30,000 people or more. When Laycock was hired in Dec. 1979, plans were in place to expand Cary Field seating to meet the demands of the NCAA mandate, but student and faculty-led opposition halted plans for expansion. By 1982, William and Mary had no choice but to move down to Division I-AA.

Four years prior, Laycock was the offensive coordinator at Clemson when the Tigers beat Woody Hayes and Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Now he was losing to Brown at home in a 1983 season that saw the College win all of three games.

Laycock would post winning records in each of his next four seasons. When the Tribe made the playoffs in 1986, it was the first postseason appearance for the College since the 1970 Tangerine Bowl. With each winning season, Laycock looked more and more likely to leave Williamsburg for a high-profile Division I-A program.

“It was good football,” Miller said. “The records back then were not that different. The only big difference was that Laycock was constantly being courted by big schools. He had an interview almost every year.”

By 1989, it appeared all but certain that Laycock would soon head for greener pastures. On the plane ride back from Japan after the Epson-Ivy Bowl, the coach was asked about his future.

“For some reason or another, I’m still here,” Laycock said. “I’m going on my 10th year here. I don’t know if I’ll be here 10 more years. It’s difficult to speculate on anyone’s future that way.”

“I don’t know how well we’ll play. It’s been a fun trip, but it hasn’t been conducive to preparing for a football game.”
— Laycock a day before the Epson-Ivy Bowl.

James Koutsos could not sleep. The flight from Patrick Henry Airport to New York seemed ages ago for the sophomore linebacker. His team had finally arrived in Tokyo at 4:35 p.m., 14 hours after leaving Kennedy Airport.

An American movie dubbed in Japanese played on the bus TV, dimly lighting the players’ faces as they stared out the windows at the streets of Tokyo.

“I remember it being late and being groggy on the bus,” Koutsos said. “We would look out the window at the cars, all the Japanese cars, and there we were, looking for something different.”

The Tribe contingent spent Tuesday recovering from jet lag. By Wednesday night, many were anxious to find out if the neon lights of Tokyo burned as bright as they seemed from their bus window.

“The place that was the most popular, we had been told, was Roppongi,” Koutsos said. “We were in an elevator going up a couple of floors, and the doors open on this club, and the gentleman who was the doorman said ‘No, no, private.’ Our guides said they were not interested in us coming in because they thought we would cause trouble, not because we were without dates.”

The team’s schedule returned to normal the next day. Laycock held a two-and-a-half hour practice at Suisan University Thursday, before a press conference in front of 60 reporters and photographers.

Laycock was asked about his team’s academic success and how he planned to defend against the Japanese golden-dragonfly formation. A reporter from Men’s Club, the Japanese equivalent of GQ, interviewed Brosnahan and Wiley about their taste in fashion while shooting glamour photos of the players.

“My mom got me this tweed jacket, which was multi-colored with pink lining, and that’s what I was wearing during the pictures I took,” Brosnahan said. “David and I, we were posing, down on one knee and stuff. It was comical. I had a flat top, back when I had a lot more hair than I have now.”

Later that night, bowl organizers held a formal dinner for the two teams in the basement of the prestigious Takanawa Prince Hotel. The players entered the ballroom in a single-file line as rock music blared in the dining hall.

“The front of the line starts moving, very fast-paced,” Brosnahan said. “When we come in through the doors, it was the equivalent of a laser light show, and the theme from Rocky was playing. The press was all there, and the light bulbs were going off. The fans were cheering for us like we were the national champs.”
For one night, they were.

“It’s my job. It is something I enjoy doing. I see a lot of people make progress during a year. I enjoy that part.”
—Laycock when asked by a Japanese reporter what football meant to him.

When he arrived in Japan, Laycock could have done whatever he wanted. Sightseeing. Cultural activities. Bars. But Laycock was happiest near the game. He always had been. So he spent most of his free time with his assistant coaches.

“He enjoyed himself,” Miller said. “He enjoyed the touring aspect of the trip; he enjoyed the culture. He enjoyed his time there. He enjoyed spending time with his coaches. I didn’t hear him mention the playoffs one time when he was there.”

The Epson-Ivy Bowl was a break for Laycock. Of the 64 players on the Japanese roster, only 12 weighed more than 200 pounds. By comparison, 26 of the 55 Tribe players weighed over 200 pounds. During the regular season, the Tribe players were always the diminutive ones, causing Laycock to work harder than most coaches.

Free time was for out-scheming opponents. Practice was for discipline.

“Coach has always been very much by the book on the football field,” Brosnahan said. “He’s a great guy when you get to know him. I got to know him much better when I stopped playing … The challenge when playing for him is that it is about football and developing as a person, as well.”

But Japan was a vacation. Laycock could relax. Normal breaches of football etiquette, which might have driven him crazy during the season, could be brushed aside.

“At the banquet, I think Peter Reid, an offensive tackle and a linebacker he hung out with, they jumped an assistant coach for the Japanese team, asking him ‘How do you send in your plays?’” Miller said. “He didn’t understand, but when he finally got it, he said ‘Me no tell you.’

“The next day I was walking by [at the hotel], and [the coaches and the players] were in a meeting. And at the end, Laycock goes, ‘And another thing, stop jerking their assistant coaches around.’”

The room exploded with laughter. Laycock was happy because he was near the game. And in Japan, the game was easy.

“We have been selected to this bowl for our tradition, I think.”
— Laycock on why the Epson-Ivy Bowl chose William and Mary.

Who knows what ghosts men see in the early hours of the morning?

Emperor Hirohito died Saturday, Jan. 7, 1989, of stomach cancer. He passed away at 6:33 in the morning, the day before the Epson-Ivy Bowl. He was 87 years old.

The Tribe players knew of the Emperor’s ill health before arriving in Japan. They all had to take a course on Japanese culture before the trip. No one in the College’s traveling party knew if the game would continue after hearing of the Emperor’s death.

“My recollection was that they brought us together as a group,” Koutsos said. “We talked before we left how they possibly could say the game was canceled and put us on a plane back home and send us away. Everyone was thinking, ‘Are we going home? Is this it?’”

The morning was cold and quiet. The banks and offices closed down for the day as officials began planning the first Japanese state funeral since 1927. Retail stores remained open, a symbol of the new Japan.

“I had a tape recorder and a camera and went down to the shopping district,” Miller said. “There was a huge Sony screen like a clock tower, and it said ‘Hirohito dies’ on the screen. The place was mobbed by people taking pictures.”

The crowds thinned by the time the Tribe left the hotel for its three o’clock practice. Japanese flags were draped in black fabric on the side of the streets of Tokyo, streets emptier than the Tribe players had ever seen them.

“Normally during the 45-minute drive from the hotel to the field, the traffic was crazy,” Newsome said. “It was [normally] bumper to bumper; everything was stopped. Anybody who has ever been in D.C. or New York during rush hour knows what it is like. The day the Emperor died; there was no traffic at all.”

The William and Mary coaches did not know for most of the morning whether the game would continue. They had been warned they could be sent back home at a moment’s notice.

“I’ve met with my staff to tell them I’m going, but I don’t know at what point I’ll be able to make a full decision there.”
— Laycock on accepting the head coaching job at Boston College.

Laycock’s success at the College continued throughout the 1980s, as he led the College to a winning record in six out of the last seven seasons.

His name was always out there, linked to potential job openings at East Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and Richmond. Still, he never accepted another job until Dec. 20, 1990, when he agreed to become the head coach at Boston College.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” Laycock said at the time. “It’s a school with academic prestige, plus the football tradition. The people up there have been very, very good and supportive. I’m going to be there tomorrow, and now that the decision is over, I can start putting my energies toward what I’m going to be doing.”

He never left. At 5:30 the next morning, Laycock called Chet Gladchuck, the Boston College athletic director, and told him he would be staying at William and Mary.

He had finally been the head coach at a Division I-A program again, for all of 14 hours.

The College held a press conference the next day to announce Laycock was staying. Twice he walked away from the podium before reading from a prepared statement. Finally, fighting back tears, he attempted to answer questions.

“I don’t know why I’m not happy,” Laycock said. “It’s nice to be here. I like it here at William and Mary.”
His name would come up again for other jobs in the future. He was always a great coach. But he would never get as close to leaving as he did that morning.

“I can’t remember going through anything like this,” Laycock said.

Who knows what ghosts men see in the early hours of the morning?

“I want everyone to understand how much we enjoyed being in Japan. It was a tremendous success.”
— Laycock after the Epson-Ivy Bowl.

The game went on as scheduled. After all, the Epson-Ivy Bowl was about the future, bringing twentieth-century American sports to Japan.

The Japanese players wore black armbands and both squads shared a moment of silence before the game. The Japanese National Network pulled out of showing the game on national TV out of respect for the Emperor, but ESPN aired a tape-delayed broadcast the next day.

A light rain and a sense of mourning kept fans away, as only 11,000 spectators filled up the 35,000-seat Yokohama Stadium.

“There was a lot of echo in the stadium,” Koutsos said. “There was still the cadence from the snap and the linemen making line calls, but otherwise it was really quiet because it was not that well attended. Most of the cheering came from the individual teams.”

It was clear from the opening snap that the Japanese squad was overmatched. Freshman running back Robert Green, who finished with 166 yards on 17 carries, led the Tribe to a 31-3 lead at halftime en route to a 73-3 victory.

“It was one of only two games where I appeared as a linebacker that season,” Koutsos said. “It was almost like spring practice. You wanted to impress the coaches when the spring came, or you wanted to take a spot.”

By the end of the game, the Tribe traveling party paid more attention to the reaction of the fans than the action on the field.

“The thing about Japan was that Japan didn’t know shit about football,” Newsome said. “I remember one play where we scored a touchdown, and the kicker comes out to kick an extra point, and he comes out and gets as big of an ovation as they did when they scored.”

The two squads traded jerseys and apparel at midfield after the game, and the Tribe gave whatever gear they had left to a group of Japanese fans. The College contingent left the hotel at 8:30 the next morning, and by noon were on a flight heading to New York. Already, the players were looking forward to the next season.

“Coming back, on the plane, the players were all talking about the playoffs the next year,” Miller said.

“I don’t have any timeframe on [retirement] whatsoever. I’m going to keep going until I figure out when it’s time to stop. We look at it from year to year, and as long as there is the commitment here to working hard and being as good as we can be within the parameters of the school, I’m good with that.”
— Laycock before his 30th season as head coach at William and Mary.

The Tribe would make the playoffs each of the next two seasons. In fact, the College would make the playoffs four times in the next seven years and would reach the NCAA quarterfinals in 1990 and 1996.

In 2008, the school built the Jimmye Laycock Football Center, and in 2009, the Tribe reached the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Laycock continued to coach at the College and the Tribe continued to win. History indeed repeats itself, as the present folds into the past.

Except that the past is not really the past but the present. There was meaning in Laycock’s old words if you look hard enough. His words stay the same because he sees the same things. He sees the past in every broken coverage and in every extra point the way we all see it every day of our lives.

Those words he said then are the words he says now because — like he said — football is his job. It is something he enjoys doing. He enjoys it because it is familiar in its sameness.

It turns out it is not that he has nothing left to say. You just never understood what he meant all along.

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