By Ethan Mickelson
Photo By Paul Flessland
Since Kelli Layman joined NDSU as an instructor in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department and assistant coach for the women’s basketball team, she has had a singular goal–to educate and guide student-athletes down a path to success. It’s safe to say that with five NCAA Division II national championships in 1991, ‘93, ‘94, ‘95 and ‘96, she’s far surpassed that goal on the court.
Today, Layman continues her passion for educating in a different arena. As associate director of athletic academics, she oversees the academics of over 400 student-athletes to prepare them for their futures while helping to ensure a successful college athletic career. Even though she’s not working on the court, Layman has the ability to touch far more lives and inspire new generations of Bison student-athletes from her office in the Academic Center at the new Sanford Health Athletic Complex (SHAC).
“It’s still coaching, just in a different way. I’m coaching them for life skills,” explained Layman. “I tell our student-athletes, use your scholarships to get the education because that’s what you’ll be doing for the next 20 years plus. We’re coaching them to understand that the backup plan is important, which is your degree.”
Call of the Herd
After finishing her master’s in biomechanics and an active basketball career at Purdue University, the Indiana native quite literally heard the call of the Herd when she received an initial phone call from NDSU’s women’s basketball head coach at that time, Amy Ruley. As a Purdue grad herself, Ruley called the women’s athletics director at Purdue, Dr. Carol Merlter, to ask for recommendations for possible assistant coach candidates.
“Dr. Mertler highly recommended Kelli, as she knew us both very well and felt we would work well together,” said Ruley. “Kelli played for Ruth Jones, who was the same basketball coach I played for three of my four years at Purdue. With both of us growing up in Indiana, majoring in physical education and playing for Purdue we had much of the same philosophy toward the game and toward teaching.”
“When I went to play at Purdue, Amy Ruley was already gone, so I never met her,” said Layman. “I had heard of her legend, because she was a really good point guard, but I never met her until I got the phone call and then I flew out here. For whatever reason, personalities worked out okay and I started working with her.”
The Purdue Duo
In hindsight, it’s clear to see the Purdue duo were the perfect recipe for success. The pair are like sisters today, living as next door neighbors and sitting together among the many past legends of NDSU in the Hall of Fame, along with their talented athletes that led the team to each of their five championships.
“I think any team that is successful, it’s because they believe in one another and they’re willing to give up their individual stats for the good of the team,” said Layman. “If a team can buy into that, and if the coaching staff has a good plan, they’re going to be successful. Our championship teams believed in one another, they believed in our philosophy. We always used to tell them that no one has worked as hard as you, you deserve to win, and they bought into that.”
Layman’s knowledge about her current roll as an associate director of athletic academics is plentiful, having been in the same demanding shoes of a student-athlete. She’s no stranger to change, starting at Purdue as a power forward in her freshman year and cycling through every position on the team and ending at point guard her senior year.
“As a student-athlete, you’re different than the rest of the student population because you are also required to technically have a job,” said Layman. “You’ve also got the NCAA guidelines over you, which are pretty strict. We talk about how we can help the student-athlete, be it time management, structure, tutors. Everybody on campus has access to that, we push them toward it.”
A Decorated Educator
To name a few of the numerous awards she’s received in addition to her induction into the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame, Layman received the prestigious Blue Key Doctor of Service, the first inaugural Student-Athlete Choice Award in 2015, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Elkhart County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I’m pretty humble with that kind of stuff because no one gets those awards without someone pushing them or helping them get there,” said Layman. “My high school coach was great. That allowed me to get to the next level. My college coach pushed me to get to the next level. Coaching with Amy Ruley, I coached with a Hall of Famer and one of the best basketball coach minds in women’s basketball, and even men’s. I got the Hall of Fame award because we won, those are the kids. You don’t get anywhere without someone helping you get there.”
“We have shared an unbelievable amount of time together and a multitude of experiences and emotions,” said Ruley. “The first National Championship in 1991 was very memorable, as that season validated what we were doing in our program. The following year, a two-point loss for a second National Championship was a heartbreaking disappointment we shared with our team and fans. Then the next four National Championship seasons in 1993, ‘94, ‘95, and ‘96 were all uniquely different and rewarding.”
Even though her role has changed since arriving in Fargo, Layman continues to make an impact on the student-athletes at NDSU. Drawing on her experience, she is sure to guide many more legends in the years to come, offering a wealth of wisdom from her time in the classroom and basketball court.
Q&A with Kelli Layman
Bison Illustrated: How did you get your team to buy into your philosophy as a coach?
Kelli Layman: “They saw we worked as hard as they did. We ran with them in the morning and every workout we were there. We would explain to them what we were doing and why we were doing it, and always told them that, you feel tired, you feel all that stuff, but when you get into the game, that adrenaline will start. Also, I don’t think either of us were big yellers, we were more explainers.”
BI: What are some outstanding memories from your time with the women’s basketball team?
KL: “The national championships are big, but more than that is watching each student-athlete grow, from their freshman year to when they walk out the door. Wins and losses, no one remembers to be quite honest. It’s how successful those student-athletes were after they left here. Sports is about life, if you teach it right. Adversity, passion, teamwork, it’s all about that.”
BI: Would you ever consider returning to the sidelines?
KL: “You know, you have thoughts of it. I really enjoyed coaching. It’s funny because I’ve been asked that question a lot lately. I’m a teacher at heart so I like the one-on-one on the court. I still get to do that teaching because I’m helping students in a variety of areas, but it’s different. I work more hours now than I did as a coach, and I couldn’t have conceivably thought that could ever happen. The amount of travel wears on you. It’s fun at first, but after awhile it’s like, ‘Where are my 15 kids? I’ve got to make sure they get on the plane.’”