IT'S A DIFFERENT Frank Layden who roams the sidelines these days. Gone are the baggy plaid coats and horn-rimmed glasses. Gone also are the pounds that threatened his life.
But there are other differences, nine years after Layden walked away in the middle of a season as head coach of the Utah Jazz. The old jokester has given way to a more thoughtful, serious replacement. There are fewer gag lines and gimmicks and no fat jokes whatsoever. You may even wait a long time to hear any self-deprecating lines about how bad the team is. The days of feuding with players are history, as well. That all belongs to the era of Adrian Dantley."Back in those (Jazz) days I would just try to fool people, distract people from the team. I tried to be Casey Stengel," says Layden. "And of course, I don't have the comic figure anymore, either. I told our (Starzz) players - and I meant it - `I want you to enjoy this part of your life, have fun. Be competitive, and I want you to be concerned about your losses, but at the same time be able to put losses aside and build.' I want that for myself, too. I'm having fun, and I wasn't always having fun in the other (coaching) job."
And so on practice days, the new coach of the Utah Starzz stands near the mid-court line, one arm across the space where his stomach used to protrude, one perpendicular, so he can scratch his chin. He wears a hat that says "WNBA," a Starzz shirt, Dockers and sneakers, looking every bit the coach who has nothing left to prove.
"I'm more mature," Layden says. "I think that in terms of maturity, I can say I'm looking ahead and not looking back. I think all coaches suffer from being afraid: afraid to lose, afraid they'll be blamed and be out on their rear ends. I don't have any of those fears anymore. I'm at a stage in my life where I don't think they can say `This guy can't coach,' or `It's up in the air.' People can't say I don't have the credentials.
"Why I'm doing this is for different reasons than before. It's not so much for Frank Layden as for the team."
Having Layden back on the sidelines paints a slightly incongrous picture. The thoughtful, ordinary-looking man bears only faint resemblance to the clowning figure who fell theatrically to the floor after being bussed by Morganna the Kissing Bandit. This is the man who, bogged down by the stress of being head coach of the Jazz, and health worries, just walked away. He told his wife the news on the way to the Salt Palace for a December game in 1989. She was so relieved she cried.
The plan sounded prudent. Layden was going to spend more time with his wife, which he did. He was going to lecture at schools (check), attend the Shakespearean Festival (check), take acting lessons (check), read more books (check) and lose weight (double-check). After doing all that, he decided he still missed coaching.
In most ways, Layden needs another coaching job like he needs to gain back the 175 pounds he lost. He wouldn't have taken an NBA job. In the years since he retired, he has turned down numerous coaching and administrative offers. But he needed competition, so he returned - thinner, happier, smarter and, of course, more relaxed - to lead the Starzz.
In one sense, Layden is taking over the same situation he had when he began coaching the Jazz. It is a team near the bottom, struggling to find its way. But while the Jazz's future was truly murky, and the talent suspect - at least in the early years - that's not the case with the Starzz. They have three of the WNBA's better players in Wendy Palmer, Margo Dydek and Elena Baranova. Layden told the Starzz after a practice this week, "I don't know if you'll be a championship team next year, but I think you'll be a contender. And the following year you'll be a legitimate team to fight for the world cham-pi-on-ship."
They might even believe him, because Layden has credentials. He is a proven coach who was both the NBA coach and executive of the year. He is, as much as anyone, responsible for the Jazz's current status as one of the best franchises in pro basketball.
So when the call went out to find someone with maturity, perspective, experience and style, the Starzz didn't have to look far to find a new coach. He was right next door - literally. Scott Layden, the team's director of basketball operations, has a Delta Center office next to his father.
But this time it is a far different Coach Layden than the one who stressed over bad calls, haggled with the players, lost sleep over losses and ordered pizza in his room. This coach is in it for the fun.