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Sloan never lets up, never looks back

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Former Jazz coach Frank Layden attended practice on Monday and returned home with this report: "I said, 'This is like practice 20 years ago. Everything's the same. Same drills, same attitude, everything."'

Same coach, too.

Tuesday's game at Minnesota marked the 20th anniversary of Jerry Sloan's debut as the Jazz coach. He has become the Mick Jagger of pro sports.

He may be in his 60s, but he still has game.

Sloan took the Jazz reins on Dec. 9, 1988, a day after then-coach Layden told his wife on the drive to the Salt Palace, "This is my last game."

Thus, Sloan got his second shot and made the most of it. There are mountains that have been in the same place fewer years. Two hundred and twenty-three coaching changes have occurred in the NBA since he took over.

Despite being the fourth-winningest coach in league history, he remains convinced he's one bad loss away from the streets. He was shocked to be fired midway through his third year in Chicago and never completely got over it. Consequently, he is both unimpressed and amazed at his longevity in Utah. He mostly shrugs, making it sound as though anyone could do it. At the same time, he appears surprised the organization tolerated him all these years.

Layden stepped aside because, as he describes it, he had lost interest after decades of coaching. He immediately took a week off to play golf in Palm Springs with then-Seattle Mariners manager Dick Williams. Sloan went to work as though his career depended on it.

"Who at the time thought he would be here 20 years later?" Layden said. "I don't think anybody could have guessed that."

Layden's departure, however abrupt, worked out fine. He had steered the Jazz through the precarious early years; gone through the Adrian Dantley contract squabbles and John Drew drug crises. That, plus the travel, had tired him.

Besides, with Sloan in the wings, he knew he wasn't exactly leaving the Jazz in the lurch.

"I was very comfortable with it," Layden said.

A no-nonsense farmer was just what the team needed.

Sloan brought in mostly players who would comply with his system and understand who was boss.

"I don't think any player here has felt so secure that he felt bigger than Jerry," Layden said. "Give Larry Miller a lot of credit for that. He made that quite clear."

Along the way, Sloan became the longest-tenured coach in pro sports (21 seasons).

Some say the game has passed Sloan by. They point to the fact he has won two conference crowns and seven divisional titles, and has taken his team to the playoffs 18 times — yet has no NBA championships.

Clearly, the lack of league titles bothers Sloan. You can see it every night, as he talks about what a missed defensive assignment in December might mean in May.

Whenever discussing his team's accomplishments, Sloan invariably says, "We really haven't done anything yet."

However self-deprecating, he makes a point. As good as the Jazz have been, they've never been great.

Still, Sloan's consistency built them into the state's most popular sports team, one that is considered a model. Every year, fans can expect their team to be in the playoffs. Their play, though not terribly flashy (Sloan's orders), has been committed and steady.

Most fans would take 20 years of good teams over a single shining moment, mixed with numerous ups and downs.

For the Salt Lake market, it probably worked out for the best. Sloan has kept his team competitive, which in large part has prevented the Jazz from moving.

Has he changed in the 20 years? Some. A seven-game suspension for shoving a ref in 2003 tempered his sideline behavior.

He is more flexible with young players and more accommodating to injuries, too.

Still, as Layden said, the practices are the same. So is Sloan's desire. Ask any coach in the NBA who has the most talent, he won't say the Jazz. But ask him which team goes to war every night. Odds are good he'll say the team that plays for the farmer who never lets up.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com