Frank Layden went out the way he came in - of his own free will and volition. There have been NBA coaches who have won more games, and had a higher winning percentage, and won more titles; but how many managed what Layden pulled off: First he hired himself, then he fired himself.
He did it his way. All the way. All the time. For the equivalent of slightly more than eight complete coaching seasons with the Utah Jazz he was the franchise's walking, talking punchline. Indomitable in all ways - well, with the exception of being able to overrule illegal zoning calls.As general manager, he hired himself as coach in early 1982, and he didn't relieve himself of his commission until Friday, only hours before the Jazz would play the Dallas Mavericks.
Layden worked for four different owners - if you count Gerald Bagley's paper money and Adnan Khashoggi's invisible money alongside Sam Battistone and Larry H. Miller - and for any number of administrators, but he never took orders from any of them, or from anyone else. Not even the media.
From the start, when the franchise moved to Utah in 1979 and he assumed the general manager duties, the Jazz were formed in Frank Layden's image. Perhaps no other team in professional sports this decade has had such a strong coach-franchise identity. Lasorda is just a part of the Dodgers, Riley is just a part of the Lakers, Ditka shares the Bears' billing with McMahon, Sparky Anderson is just a part of the Tigers.
The Jazz are Frank Layden.
What was that image? It's as hard to pinpoint as Layden's weight over the tugs and pulls of the past eight-year reign. Frank Layden was the funniest coach in the NBA, and the most serious; he was the loosest coach in the NBA, and the tightest; he was the most gracious interview in the history of sports, and the most ingracious; he was a champion of players' rights, and a critic of players' rights; he was a good loser, he was a bad loser.
On any given night.
He was always as unpredictable as Friday's surprise retirement announce-ment.
But underneath it all, it was obvious that he always had a grip. A firm grip.
He was not a cerebral coach. He did not give interviews in Xs and Os. He was an emotional coach. At his best, he was a walking-talking inspiration show.
He turned himself into easily the No. 1 sports celebrity in Salt Lake City. All by himself, he got more endorsements than all of the old Utah Stars combined.
He had problems with fickle fans, disloyal commissioners, incompetent referees and prima donna players.
Other than that, he might have coached forever.
As it is, he rang up a 277-294 (.485) record that easily ranks as the highest winning percentage in the history of the Jazz, and he closes out with five and a quarter consecutive seasons above .500.
He's chosen to step down when the team is 11-6 and leading the Midwest Division and being hailed as one of five or six franchises with a legitimate shot at winning the entire NBA this season.
Around here, that's as good as it's ever been.
Layden's desire is to watch the rest of the show from the president's chair, duties undetermined.
In a lot of ways, he's paralleling the way Red Auerbach got out of one end of the game and still stayed in it.
Frank Layden's image will remain indelibly with the Utah Jazz. He's the man who created the monster in the first place; the man who directed the moving vans from New Orleans and told them where to put the filing cabinets almost a decade ago. He'll still keep it fed. His moves will now be more behind-the-scenes, but nonetheless forceful.
His legacy is the ultra-healthy team and franchise that now represents Utah in the NBA. If Frank Layden will permit the new team president the luxury, he should give himself a bonus and a few nights off for good behavior. Usually, getting fired in the early season is nothing to celebrate, but in this case, the Jazz's latest ex-coach has a lot of success to reflect back on - and no grudges against the guy who gave him the ax.