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Reunited In The Blue Ridge
Story first appeared in Flames Illustrated, Jan. 15-29 issue
When Liberty Head Men's Basketball Coach Ritchie McKay first started to feel that the Flames' head coaching job was coming to fruition, he immediately thought of an old friend who could be a perfect fit on his new staff.
The friend on McKay's mind was Dale Layer, who had spent the last seven seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. While in Fort Collins, he had led the Rams to the 2003 Mountain West Conference Championship and a narrow defeat to Duke in the NCAA Tournament. At the conclusion of the 2006-07 season though, the university administration informed Layer they were going a different direction and had decided not to bring him back.
"I instantly asked Dale if he would join me again in Virginia, now that his time with Colorado State was over," said McKay. "He said he would consider it, but all I could think was that it wasn't going to happen, it wasn't going to happen."
Flashing back 18 years is where this story truly begins. The lifelong friendship between the two men goes back to 1989, when a young McKay was hired as an assistant coach at Queens College in Charlotte, N.C., by Layer.
"We were connected through a mutual friend with whom he had been working, said Layer. "He thought I was looking for a person like Ritchie. It was an easy hire because Ritchie is passionate about basketball, an energetic person and a hard worker with great vision and understanding for the game."
The job was McKay's first full-time coaching job and, even though it was only one season before he moved on to his alma mater at Seattle Pacific in 1990, there was an unbreakable bond formed between the two men.
"We have remained very close since our days at Queens College," commented Layer. "He would baby-sit my kids and before his wife Julie and he were married, she would stay with us in Charlotte. We have such strong ties."
The ties were such that eight years later, when McKay took the head coaching job at Colorado State, he thought immediately of Layer. So Layer packed up his family and moved to Fort Collins, Colo., to assist McKay with the Rams' program.
"It was a great move for me professionally, but it was a hard move for my family," stated Layer. "We did not have many ties in Colorado and we had to uproot three kids from schools and neighborhoods."
The move proved to be a great one for Layer, however, as he helped McKay take the Rams to the final eight of the 1999 NIT. When McKay left for Oregon State in 2000, Layer was awarded the head coaching position.
Layer enjoyed a successful run at Colorado State, averaging 15 wins a year while competing in a very talented Mountain West Conference with the likes of Air Force, BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming. Each of those teams made at least one trip to the NCAA Tournament during his tenure with the Rams.
The university then let Layer go at the end of the 2007 season despite his 17-13 record and non-conference wins against the likes of Boise State, Kansas State, Colorado and Chattanooga.
The move ended up being a huge gain for the Flames. One week to the day after McKay was announced as the seventh head coach in Liberty men's basketball history, the two friends were reunited on Liberty Mountain when Layer accepted the assistant coach position.
"I am so honored Dale decided to join us, and he has been a tremendous blessing for me and our program," commented McKay.
The admiration each man has for the other is remarkable. "I am very selective of the people I work with or for," said Layer. "Ritchie is one of those guys who is a terrific person, a great family man and a tremendous coach. There aren't many people like that in our profession, and I am honored to work with him."
"Dale's integrity, experience, coaching ability and the way he works with guys individually is a tremendous asset," noted McKay. "For us to have someone of his stature help develop our young people and develop our program is priceless."
There is no doubt Layer can find and develop players. One such player is former Colorado State center Jason Smith. The seven-footer, who was very raw coming out of high school, scored over 1,500 points for Layer's Rams during his final three seasons. Due to his development under Layer's tutelage, Smith was chosen with the 20th selection of the NBA Draft's first round by the Miami Heat. Moments after the selection, the Heat traded the rights to Smith to the Philadelphia 76ers in return for the rights to Ohio State freshman guard Daequan Cook.
Layer's transition to Liberty has been very smooth. Not only is Layer familiar with McKay, but also fellow assistant Brad Soucie, who has been at every step of McKay's head coaching career, including Colorado State. Even though the Layer family was uprooted once again, Virginia has proven to be a good place to live, with relatives in Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee and good friends located in North Carolina.
For Layer, the son of a coach, who got his start in coaching by taking a job as a janitor to allow for afternoons off to coach, this is another chapter of a great college basketball story. Two high-profile coaches who have worked together on two previous occasions now are reunited in the city of Lynchburg, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, next to the historic James River and at a place that is a sleeping giant in college basketball.
"Liberty has terrific potential," commented Layer. "The facilities are first class, the administration understands what it takes for us to succeed, the support level is great and it's located in a part of the country which values basketball."
Vincent Briedis is an assistant athletics media relations director for Liberty University who covers men's basketball.