Ryan Ayers always thought his path through basketball would lead to coaching.
Most of it comes through his bloodline. Ayers’ father, Randy, is a lifelong coach. He served as the head coach at Ohio State from 1989-97 and has since been in the NBA, mostly as an assistant with a few different teams save a brief stint as head coach in Philadelphia.
So, when Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey suggested to Ayers toward the end of his playing days in South Bend that coaching would be a logical move, it rang true.
“Coach (Brey) is really good about maintaining relationships with his former players,” Ayers said. “Any time I was able to text him or call him he was getting back to me. We’ve talked over the years. I’m sure he’ll tell the story of when I was a junior, I came in and we were having our end of the year meetings. He was saying, ‘I know you wanna go play after school and you should do that for five or six years. But until then you should look into coaching.’
“Literally, five or six years later I’m back here. After obviously coaching at Bucknell for a couple years. It’s funny how everything comes to fruition.”
Ayers returns to Notre Dame with some seasoning.
He spent five seasons playing professionally after graduation with stops in the D-League, Finland and France before the transition into coaching. Ayers spent the next two seasons as an assistant at Bucknell, where his younger brother had played.
Just this spring Ayers crossed paths with Brey on the AAU circuit while recruiting for the Bison. When coaches hit the road again in July, Ayers will do so in a Notre Dame polo shirt instead.
Departures from longtime assistants Anthony Solomon (Georgetown assistant) and Martin Ingelsby (Delaware head coach) opened up a couple spots on the bench. Ayers secured one of them along with fellow alum Ryan Humphrey.
“I love coach Ingelsby and coach Solomon,” Ayers said. “They were my coaches here. I knew that they were both very capable of going other places and getting head jobs. I was just kinda preparing. When I got that call, I was very excited to be in contention and one of the guys he wanted to replace those guys with because they’ve done tremendous work. Those guys are two of my mentors in the coaching world. I just wanted to be kinda prepared. I was very excited when coach talked to me.”
Much has changed even in the short time since Ayers departed the program as a player.
Notre Dame now competes in the ACC instead of the Big East. Brey is fresh off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, coming within a couple possessions of reaching a Final Four for the first time.
Ayers watched from afar — or in the stands, as was the case this past March — as Brey led the program to new heights. It’s a series of steps that isn’t lost on the former player turned coach.
“I think it’s a multitude of things,” Ayers said. “I’m sure they’ve tweaked some things. They’ve had really good players, really good leadership. He’s really good at managing personalities and knowing when to put different guys in the right places to succeed. It’s no takeaway from any team he’s ever had because we’ve always been really competitive and played at the highest level in our conference and won some really big games.
“I just think with March and the teams, I guess he really did a good job of building them in the right spot. Each year you get better as a coach, just like you expect to. He’s really found something here.”
Recruiting for future March runs will be one of Ayers’ first assignments.
Summer practice sessions with the team aside, recruiting takes center stage in the spring and summer. Coaches will hit the road to watch prospects with their AAU teams again in July, providing Ayers a first opportunity to represent his alma mater on the road.
Ayers doesn’t view it as salesmanship, more speaking on a program that’s sent him out and brought him back again.
“It's something that I’ve always kind of wanted to do,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that, to put that ND on my chest and be out there watching kids. I think it’s the best university in the country. I know I’m biased. I have a degree from here. But if you want both excellence in academics, spiritually and on the basketball court, I think it's the best university. Luckily, Bucknell is where my brother went, so that was an easy sell for me too. This is gonna be an even easier one because I lived the story.”