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Interview with Colorado State’s Dale Layer

November 13, 2003 Columns No Comments

An Interview with Colorado State’s Dale Layer

by Bill “CigarBoy” Kintner

In his third year at Colorado State, Dale Layer has a 46-45 record and 19-14 last year with a surprise NCAA appearance. The Rams were playing great ball toward the end of last year beating UNLV in the Mountain West title game and nearly upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The play at the end of last year provided a glimpse of what Rams fans can expect in the future. It also got Dale Layer a contract extension.

I caught up with Dale this past summer in Indianapolis at the Nike Camp. We met at downtown sports bars to eat and talk about basketball. So in between potato skins, ice tea and the Reds game on Fox Sports we managed to find out a little about a coach who is starting to raise some eyebrows in the Mountain West Conference.

CigarBoy: Tell me about your first NCAA appearance as a head coach, last year.

Dale Layer: It was kind of an unusual season. Early in the year, we won 12 straight home games and were rolling and things were fitting together pretty well for us. We were 2 and 1 in the conference at UNLV and things were running well. We were excited about how the season was progressing and then they beat us by about 35 at their place.

CB: Was that the beginning of that losing streak that hit the Rams last year?

DL: Yes, we were 2 and 1 in the league going into that game. That kind of turned our season around. That was the first of seven straight conference losses. Things are going well then all of a sudden you hit the skids and lose seven straight in the middle of the conference season. That was tough. We were playing well. We thought our team was progressing. We just couldn’t win a basketball game. We lost by 2, lost by 3, lost on the last possession. But, yet, our team came to work every day. Kept their spirits about them. Kept working and improving. I could see us getting better, yet we weren’t getting rewarded for it.

CB: Let me stop you there. When you see a team that is in the games yet struggling a bit, what do you, as the coach, do?

DL: Think about suicide, one. Think about quitting, two. No, we just thought, “okay, what can make our team about 5 percent better”? You’re tempted to scrap things or start over or make wholesale changes but the staff just kept trying to determine what could make us 5 percent better because if we were 5 percent better we would start winning games. So, we started looking at tapes and breaking things down. Little things like a loose ball here, we stepped in the lane here, and we gave them two extra free throws …. We kept convincing our team that if we just got a little bit better here and there, we could start winning some games. Then, we beat San Diego State by 13 in our last home game, which was senior night. That gave us some momentum, I think, especially after we had lost seven straight. Then, we carried that into Utah and they had won something like 65 straight conference home games. We beat them, there, when they were ranked 23rd in the country. You could see us starting to believe.

CB: Was that the end of your conference play?

DL: Yes, we were in February. That was, in fact, our last conference weekend. Then, we were at BYU in Utah. There were only about 24,000 people there that night. We played them tough, lost by 12 or so but felt like we were really gaining some momentum heading into the conference tournament.

CB: Okay, let’s stop there. Wyoming has been the class team of the Mountain West, right?

DL: Yes, they had won it back-to-back years. They are our closest rival in the league, only 45 minutes away. There are a lot of passions there between the Cowboys and the Rams.

CB: Looking at last season going into October 15th last year, what did you think your team was going to do? Be honest, now.

DL: That’s a good question. I don’t ever know … every season is a marathon. There are so many things that happen – injuries, hot streaks – you just don’t know. It’s like guessing what will you be like at retirement? It’s just so far away; you don’t know when you start the season. You just kind of go game to game. Practice, practice, practice and you hope to get better. I thought we had a chance to be a little better than .500 and maybe challenge for 4th or 5th in our league. Our team did better than that. Getting hot at the right time in the conference tournament was a key. Everything came together at the right time.

CB: In the tournament, as you headed to Las Vegas, what did you think was going to happen in the tournament?

DL: Well, you never think you’ll win 3 games as the 6th seed. We won 3 straight nights and it was in the last possession of each of the 3 games. Who would have thunk it? You can’t go in thinking you can win all 3 games because that’s such a long shot. But, you break it into game-by-game and every time you win you get a little more momentum and a little more confidence. (Briefly, the interview is interrupted by our attempt to change the TV channel from the Yankees/Braves game to the Reds game in the sports bar where we are doing the interview) Hey, wait a minute. They’re switching the TV. Let’s get them to put the Reds game on.

CB: Yeah put the Reds game on! (to the waitress)

DL: Gee, where are we … in Atlanta or New York City? (to the waitress)

CB: Okay, it looks like they switched out TV over to the Reds game. Okay, you’re going into your 4th year, how are things looking this year?

DL: We lost 2 thousand point scorers, first time in history we had 2 thousand point scorers who graduated in the same year. So it’s Andy Birley and Brian Greene graduating, both who were terrific four-year players for us, but we got seven of our top nine back. So we have Matt Nelson, a seven footer, a Mountain West Conference tournament MVP who averaged 17 points per game for us last year is back and the offense will go through him. He’s just a junior and he’ll make a lot of money someday playing basketball if he keeps progressing. So he will be a very good player. Matt Williams and Ronnie Clark – they are both capable of getting double-doubles on any given night. Michael Morris is the son of NBA player Chris Morris who played in the league for thirteen years with Utah and New Jersey. He started as a freshman for us, he’s back. We’ve got a really good nucleus and we’ve got the best recruiting class ever. A 6’11” kid out of Texas and a seven foot kid out of Texas, a 6’8″ three man out of Fort Worth, Texas and a guard, Dwight Boatner out of Louisiana. So we’ve got by far the best recruiting class ever. I think that we’ve got a good nucleus and, some good newcomers. I don’t see any reason why we can’t take another step in the right direction and be improved. Who knows how many wins that means, there’s great optimism and as we head into next year.

CB: Okay, did you set goals for your team last year?

DL: We’ve got to get better today. That’s our goal, what’s today and how do we get better? Is it in the weight room? Is it in the classroom? Is it working on our free throws? You know there are things that we do, to emphasize practice to practice, game to game depending on the other team’s weakness and strengths and we do set some goals. We were second in the country in field goal percentages last year with 51 percent. So we try to take good shots, we try to take care of the basketball, and play great defense. Mostly it is a game to game practice to practice thing. The overriding factor is how do we improve and how do we work hard enough to improve daily?

CB: Tell us a little about the conference. Could you go around the top teams in the conference and give a little review about each team.

DL: BYU will be picked to win the league again. They return four starters, and nine of their top ten players, They have a great coach in Steve Cleveland. He led a team that’s been in the tournament the last two years. They are the odds on favorites. Wyoming will be strong again. Utah is always very, very good with Coach Rick Majerus. UNLV had a very good recruiting class. San Diego State has seven of their top ten back. New Mexico is kind of reloading with a lot of new guys. They lost Ruben Douglas, the nation’s leading scorer last year, but I think they’ll be a lot more balanced and probably a lot deeper. They had a great recruiting class. Air Force runs the Princeton system. They are extremely hard to play against because they are well coached. I think they run the Princeton system better than anybody does in the country now. So Princeton, I think runs the Air Force system now more than Air Force running the Princeton system. So we’ve got a great league. It’s 5th in the nation in total attendance and average attendance per game. Not many people would know that our league for home games is right around ten thousand a night in attendance.

CB: Coach, when you come to a camp like Nike, this weekend, what are you trying to accomplish here?

DL: Number one, you evaluate players a little bit. Most of the time you track guys that you’ve been recruiting as juniors all year. They know you; they want to be sure they see you along the sides in the stands. It’s important that the head coach is there.

CB: I think the hip kids would say, “you’ve got to show them a little love?”

DL: Yeah, you can’t go up to them and shake their hand. But you can at least show that you’re there and you’re tracking them. They appreciate that. They want to see what kind of shirt you’ve got on and what shoes you’re wearing. It’s interesting what 17 year-olds think and observe.

CB: When you are recruiting a player, what characteristics do you look for? Personally and athletically, what is the profile of the kind of guys you’re trying to recruit?

DL: Number one, we’re trying to figure out what kind of person they are. What makes them tick? Can they fit in with an academic environment? Can they fit in with the guys that you have on the team? You can’t separate the character from the player and the playing ability. Because it’s like fitting into a family. Can he fit with the rest of the family? If it’s not a fit then it really doesn’t matter how good of a player he is. He’s got to be able to fit in with twelve other guys. What kind of person are you adding to the family, that’s number one. You are always looking for specific skills. Do they compliment or accentuate your team? Some years you are looking for a defensive stopper, some years you are looking for a great shooter, sometimes you’re looking for size or a point guard that can make everybody else better. So you are looking for different things that fit your needs based on what you’re going to graduate that year and hopefully will make your team better.

CB: When you were recruiting student-athletes for what do you sell? What are the things that you sell about your school or your program?

DL: We’re in a great location. Fort Collins, Colorado’s about 125,000 – 130,000 people, 45 minutes from Denver. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, it’s nice, and it’s a great college town. We got big time football, always ranked in the top 20 in the country. Facilities are great. Our league is probably under-appreciated and underexposed. In the Rocky Mountain region, there’s not a highly populated area and people on the East Coast don’t know about us. If they’re not insomniacs or hoop junkies, they really don’t know what’s going on because we usually play at midnight, Eastern Time on ESPN. We talked about the great teams……UNLV, Utah, BYU, Wyoming and New Mexico. It’s a great league, with terrific basketball-conscious fans. You know we had two guys drafted this past year in our league, and a lot of good things can happen in our league.

CB: What’s your recruiting base? I mean there’s not that many players in Colorado.

DL: Wherever there is a player, we will go. Convincing that player to come to Colorado is difficult. From Florida its kind of a long drive or long flight. So our base is mostly in the West Coast and Texas; we have seven Texans on the roster next year. That state has been very, very good to us. You know, to folks that grow up in Texas, Colorado is pretty attractive; you’ve got the mountains and low humidity. It’s not that far away from Texas, so we’ve had a lot of success there. We still recruit Colorado very hard, but there are just not that many good players in Colorado in any given year. But the best players in the state we sure want to get them to stay and we do our best to try to recruit them. But we’ve got one from Florida on the team, one from Louisiana, seven from Texas, a couple from the state of Colorado. Let’s see, last year we graduated a guy from Washington.

CB: Phil Martelli said that he recruits from Texas, because they travel. Is that pretty much the way Texas recruits are known? I guess it is, isn’t it?

DL: There’s not that much of a loyalty in Texas. If you grow up in Kentucky, you might be a Louisville fan or a Wildcat fan. If you grow up in Indiana you’re a Hoosier. In Ohio, you either like Cincinnati or Ohio State and that’s your dream to play in one of those programs. Texas, you know, they don’t have that kind of basketball tradition. Certainly, maybe with the Longhorns at some point with the success they are having, but right now there are a lot of players in Texas and they need to go somewhere. Generally speaking, they are not averse to leaving the state and Colorado is kind of an attractive spot.

CB: Last question. Right now, we’re in July; what excites you right now?

DL: Oh, Gosh, what excites me besides Cincinnati Reds baseball?

CB: Besides Cincinnati Reds baseball and smelling the aroma of my cigar.

DL: You can leave that one (the cigar) off the list pal. (both chuckle) Well, it’s exciting to go on the road recruiting even though it wears you out. You know it’s kind of a transition. You get to July and your mind starts thinking recruiting because for that seventeen or eighteen straight days or so in July it is all recruiting. Come back from July, you end up taking ten days off for vacation and then school starts. So you know when you get to July you focus on your recruiting and you have to get out there. You get to eight or ten different places in a month, seeing ten thousand different players and you try to sort them out to get two or three guys. You kind of get your energy, your passions and your juices going again because you are starting to think about how to put together the following year’s team.

CB: I know you need to get back over to the gym so I will let you get going. It was a fun, at least on my part and thank you for your time.

DL: I had fun and the Reds are winning!


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