Frank Layden: The man living the fantasy-camp retirement

Published: Monday, June 23 2014 6:45 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Frank Layden, the former coach and face of the Utah Jazz, picked up the phone one day and heard the voice on the other end say: “I’m looking for Frank Layden. Is he still alive?”

Yes, he is, albeit a little grayer, a little heavier, but as humorous, philosophical and gregarious as always. It’s been 15 years since he formally retired from the front office of the Jazz and 25 years since he stepped down as head coach, and yet he still is recognized everywhere, as much for his outsize personality, humor and graciousness as for his basketball exploits.

He recently returned from a monthlong cruise in the South Pacific in which the ship’s captain asked him if he would do an interview-style show for the other guests. “Sure, but do you think anyone will come?” he asked. The theater was packed. He’ll be walking on the streets of his native New York or down an airport concourse and people will call out to him, “Hey, Coach, how ya doin’?” The other day a man asked if Layden would pose for a photo with his family. When they were finished, he said, “Thanks, LaVell.”

“As the years go by, that happens more and more,” says Layden, smiling. “They know they know you from somewhere.”

He’s 82 years old and living a fantasy-camp retirement. Golf in the summer with his wife of 48 years, Barbara, and his son Michael; winters in sunny climes, usually Florida and Arizona, where he can take in baseball spring-training games; trips to New York once or twice a year to get his Broadway fix; annual trips to Cooperstown with old friends; outings with his grandchildren; speeches and emcee gigs for various events.

“I may be retired, but it seems like the opposite,” he says.

Layden has made Utah his home in retirement, which is surprising given his roots in the East, particularly his native New York. He has the means to live anywhere, but after 35 years in Salt Lake City, he never could leave. He considered Florida and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He chose the heart of downtown Salt Lake City instead, surrounded by malls, streets and people.

“This is a great place to live,” he says. “There are good people here, and they have been good to me. We have fun here.”

This is where he raised two of his three children, both of whom settled here. This is where he prospered and found a national stage and was embraced by everyone from fans to media and management. This is where he finds numerous golf courses and ballgames and cultural events, all more readily accessible than in, say, New York City.

He makes the round of local minor league baseball games — Salt Lake Bees, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz (he still sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Bees games). “When I go to a baseball game,” he says, “I go ‘whew!’ I lay back and enjoy it.” Before he flees winter, he sees Utah State, Utah, BYU and Weber State basketball games.

He’s a regular patron of the Hale and Pioneer theaters. He still takes in Jazz games. He finishes each day sitting on the balcony of his apartment, listening to the BBC. He goes to bed late, reading mysteries until the wee hours, and wakes up early.

“One thing I try to emphasize is it should be fun,” he said as he ate a sandwich in a Salt Lake bagel shop. “Anything you do. If you go to school, it should be fun; if you go to work, it should be fun. And then you work and each day there should be some satisfaction that you accomplished something.”

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