Jimmye Laycock will be there, feeling like a proud father.
Something too improbable to even consider when Sean McDermott and Mike Tomlin played football for him at William & Mary is about to happen Sunday night at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field: They'll square off as head coaches in an NFL game.
"I never in my wildest dreams ever thought of something like that," Laycock said.
McDermott, a safety for the Tribe from 1994 to 1997, is nearing the end of his third season with the Buffalo Bills. Tomlin, a wide receiver for William & Mary from 1991 to '94, is in the home stretch of his 13th season in charge of the Steelers.
The former college teammates, who have remained friends all these years, have never met as opposing head coaches. Until now. And their meeting casts a spotlight on the program that Laycock ran for 39 seasons before his retirement last year.
"He ran a pro-style program," McDermott told reporters earlier in the week. "I remember getting a handbook the very first summer camp and it was all rules, regulations, policies and procedures. It's probably somewhere in my basement now. He just did things the right way."
Tomlin acknowledges that he didn't appreciate Laycock's ultra-organized, thorough approach until after graduation.
"It’s one of those principles you hear about, but when you’re living it as a young person, you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever,’" Tomlin said during a conference call with reporters who cover the Bills. "Looking back at it now, and seeing some of the success of some of my friends in all different walks of life, I gained a better appreciation for the experience. It’s just about putting you in an environment and around smart, innovative kids and letting you grow together ... Sean and I get a lot of attention, because of the jobs that we hold. But we’ve got many teammates that are doing awesome things in different walks of life that are just as, quote-unquote, successful or more successful than we are.
"Coach (Laycock) has been a blueprint, not only for me but for a lot of us. I’m sure Sean would say the same. It will be an honor for him to watch us work and, hopefully, in some way we honor him with how we perform."
Besides McDermott and Tomlin, Laycock also had Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith (who also formerly worked for the Bills) as an assistant coach on his William & Mary staff. Other branches on the Laycock coaching tree include Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, both of whom got their first taste of the profession as assistants with the Tribe.
Laycock, 71, had a career record of 249-195-2. That included 24 winning seasons, five conference championships, 10 NCAA playoff appearances, and two NCAA semifinals.
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Laycock talked by phone with The Buffalo News about coaching McDermott and Tomlin, as well as former Bills Mark Kelso and Steve Christie, and the three seasons he played at William & Mary for Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy.
Buffalo News: What's the story behind the spelling of your first name?
Jimmye Laycock: It goes back to my mother wanting to do something different. Basically, that's what it was. Bless her heart, she's a good lady. She wanted Jim, but she didn't want James, so she came up with that. And that stuck with me forever.
BN: How tough was it, especially as a kid, to deal with misspellings and so forth?
JL: Well, I never made a big deal about it. I mean, if they forgot to add the "e," it never bothered me. Everybody, when I give it to them, will ask, "Are you sure?" I'll say, "Yeah, that's the way it is."
BN: What was it about you or your program that you think helped influence Sean and Mike to get into coaching?
JL: I think part of it had to be with their experience that they got with with playing college football here at William & Mary. I think it was a very positive experience for both of them, and I think it certainly shaped the path that they wanted to go on. They had a good feeling about football, about the way that it could be done or how it is or about coaching and what you can do as a coach and how that can play into some other things. I think that gave them a really good foundation insofar as getting started and wanting to get started in it.
I don't think many people come here with the idea they want to be NFL coaches. They probably do now, but it didn't used to be. I just think it's just kind of the type of program that they're exposed to, the type of culture they're exposed to. And it certainly played out for those two.
BN: Was there anything about the strategy or structure that played a role in preparing them for coaching?
JL: For one thing, you have to really coach them up here. It's not the fact that you could have gone out and gotten the greatest athletes in the world and been successful. So we had to work like crazy to find every little angle we could and develop players the best we could and teach them and get them better and better. I've said to people, "William & Mary makes you a great coach." And a number of guys who have gone on from here have said that they really, really grew as coaches from being here and within the type of program that we had, with what we had to do, and all that.
For many, many years, we had such hard academic requirements. Admissions were very, very difficult, school was very difficult, we had no facilities and very little money. But we never made excuses, and we found a way to win, and we won consistently. And that's something that I think has resonated with them and they've taken that on forward with them. And with the type of people that we have here, they're thinking, "I'm going to William & Mary, because I want to go into business or I want to get an MBA or I want to go to law school or I want to do this or go to med school." It's not like you're coming here to be a coach. You've got to work at it. There's no easy classes, there's no ways just to get by and play football and then go into coaching. But these guys and other guys have done it.
BN: How would you describe your coaching style?
JL: It was about being consistent. Doing things right on a consistent basis, finding a way to help players reach their potential, and teaching the players about holding themselves accountable and how to make a commitment, whether things happen good or bad or whatever. Make the commitment and stick with it. These are things that I think help shape the program, but also help shape these players for later on in life. That's really the essence of what we wanted to do. My last game last year, we had over 400 players come back. It was pretty evident that these guys had learned a good lesson and had done real well.
BN: What were some of the qualities about Sean, the player, that stood out?
JL: It was probably pretty evident, even now, insofar as the type of person he is. He was not the biggest, strongest, fastest guy. In fact, he came in as a walk-on and just showed tremendous work ethic and was very intelligent. I mean, that's not like that's unusual here. All of them were. But he was very consistent about what he did and made himself into a very good college player.
He was not one of those rah-rah type of guys. I don't remember him getting too carried away with himself when he did something really well or ever getting too far down when he didn't. He was probably tough on himself. He pushed himself, I know that, and kept working at it. At the end of spring practice, we would give a "Winter Warrior Award" to the individual who did the best job in their offseason program, and in Sean's senior year, he won that.
He was like a coach on the field. He knew that stuff inside and out when he was a player. That's why I kept him on for a year (as a graduate assistant coach). I wanted to keep him longer, but that's all he could stay. But it was obvious. He had the tools to be a very, very good coach at an early age. I knew that.
BN: Is there any singular moment from Sean's time at William & Mary that stands out?
JL: When he got the scholarship here, it meant so much to him. It wasn't something that he felt like he was entitled to. He deserved it, by far. But he was so, so appreciative of it.
BN: How did Sean's background as a standout high school wrestler factor into what he did as a football player?
JL: That was kind of the mentality that he brought to football: Wrestlers, you know, they just won't give up. They just keep on fighting until they can't do anything more. But that's kind of the way he was. It may not have been flashy, but, boy, it was effective. I think that's kind of the way his personality is. I don't think you look at him as a wild, outgoing, flashy type of guy.
But boy, he is consistent, he is solid, he's steady as they go. I wasn't surprised when he got a head-coaching job. I just thought it took a little bit longer than I thought it would for him to get a head-coaching job. That's kind of the way things work sometimes. But I think he's perfect for the mentality up there in Buffalo.
BN: Why do you say that?
JL: They're just hard-nosed people that have to work for what they get. He's just a blue-collar type of guy. He never had anything given to him. He's earned everything he's gotten. That's just the way Sean is and that's the way Sean's always been.
I don't think he's been any different toward me since his first year at William & Mary until right now. He's honest, very thoughtful, just a really, really good guy. He's called me a number of times and bounced some things off of me. We've talked about some things in coaching and being a head coach and all that, and he's always been very, very respectful of me.
That's one of the things I really admire about Sean and Mike both. They've gone pretty far up the totem pole right now, and they are still who they are. There's no phoniness at all. With a lot of people in the coaching profession nowadays, that's a shrinking trait.
I'll send Mike a text: "Hey, Mike, give me a call when you get a chance." And, boom, he'll call right away. And I'll say, "You didn't have to call back that fast." He said, "Coach, old habits are hard to break."
BN: You never got the drift from Mike that he was interested in pursuing a coaching career, did you?
JL: No, not until he finished up and then he told me that. And I questioned him about that. I said, "You sure you know what you're getting into, Mike?" Because Mike was a more outgoing, having-a-good-time type of guy and very good personality-wise. And my fear at that point in time was that he had the wrong perception of what coaching's all about. He just sees the Saturday afternoon games and fun, as opposed to the work ethic required and the hours and the low pay and yada, yada, yada.
But every time, when he would talk about another coaching job or be approached by another job, he'd call me and we'd talk. And the first thing I'd always ask him was, "Mike, are you still enjoying yourself? Do you still like it?" He'd always say, "Coach, I love it … Coach, I love it." That's the kind of feeling that he has towards it, I think, even to this day. Every time I talk to him, he's always upbeat.
I still tell Mike he made the best catch I've ever seen. He made a catch against UMass up there one day that was behind his back, in the corner of the end zone. And it was unbelievable. I still tell him, when he won the Super Bowl, it was Santonio Holmes who made a great catch for them to win it. I told Mike, "That was a great catch, but it still wasn't as good as yours." He said, "Yeah, Coach, but the stage was a whole lot bigger." I said, "Yeah, you're right about that, Mike. I'm not going to argue that."
BN: While we're talking about the Bills, you played quarterback for Marv Levy for three years at William & Mary. What was that like?
JL: It was wonderful. Sometimes, when we would be in a team meeting, he'd say something and we'd all look at each other and say, "Do you know what he meant by that? Do you know what that word was?" He was so smart, but he was a good guy and he still is to this day. He was down here for homecoming and I got to visit with him again. He's just a wonderful guy.
BN: You think of the lineage. Marv coaches you and you coach Sean. It's easy to connect those dots and see some similarities between the current Bills and the teams that Marv coached. Can you see that?
JL: Yeah, I can see that. Because, again, it's not flamboyant. It's not all this other crazy stuff. It's just doing your job. It's attention to detail. And that's the way Marv was. I played for three years for Marv and one year for Lou Holtz. That's a pretty good background right there, in itself. When I went into coaching, I felt like, "Hey, I was pretty far along, just because of the football that I learned from the people that I was with in college." I think that served me well, and I think that's probably served some of those other guys as well.
BN: What was your biggest takeaway from playing for Marv?
JL: Attention to detail. You had to hang your pants on the right hanger in the locker, too, boy. We kid about that all the time, but the way the locker was set up, it was pretty laid out for you and you had to follow it. If you didn't, you ran five 100(-yard dashes) after practice. Attention to detail. It's doing what's right. You say, "This is what we want to do, it's right." You do it." I learned a lot under Marv.
BN: What do you remember about coaching Mark Kelso?
JL: The first game that he started, I think, was at Dartmouth. He goes in as a freshman, intercepts two or three passes. He does a great job and helps us win. Then, he showered and he's the first guy back on the bus studying Spanish before we ever leave there. That's the kind of guy Kelso was.
Then, I remember another game, against Richmond. He's fielding a punt and he gets blasted. He's got blood coming out from everywhere. He comes to the sideline, he's got pieces of cotton stuck up both nostrils and he goes back in there. Mark was a great one.
BN: How about Steve Christie?
JL: Steve was a great kicker for us. He was the first kicker where I had everybody line up after practice and would say, "OK, we're going to try this field goal. We make it, we're done. If we miss it, we're running." I used to put that pressure on Steve. He said that really helped make him into the kicker he was.