By Todd Shanesy
Wofford football head coach Mike Ayers walks the sideline during the Clemson
game last season. JOHN BYRUMemail@example.com
It's been a quarter of a century since Mike Ayers took the reins of the Wofford College football team as head coach.
“Does it seem that long ago?” he said. “No, it really doesn't.”
Ayers will have his 25th home opener at 7 p.m. Saturday against Lincoln University at Gibbs Stadium. He walked to his office from the practice fields earlier this week as he has done thousands of times and thought back to his first season in 1988.
“It's just a little bit different than when I got here,” Ayers said. “We were over at old Snyder Field back then. I remember we'd come off the field and the locker room was hotter than it was outside.… Just the other day, I told some of the players, ‘I've got shoestrings older than you guys.' ”
Wofford now has NFL-caliber facilities (used by the Carolina Panthers for training camp), including Gibbs Stadium, which cost $4.5 million to build in 1996. Ayers has guided Wofford through Division II days and into the Southern Conference, which invited the Terriers to replace Marshall 15 years ago.
“A lot of people never thought they would see something like this at Wofford,” Ayers said. “I can remember the day it was announced that we were the newest member of the Southern Conference and all the negative publicity that went with it. We would never compete. We will be a whipping boy. We could never win a championship. … All I can say is they were wrong.”
Wofford has won three Southern Conference championships (2003, 2007 and 2010) and made the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs four times in the past five years. In 2003, when the Terriers went 8-0 in the league, they made it to the national semifinals. Ayers won the Eddie Robinson Award as national coach of the year.
There have been plenty of offers since then to move on from Wofford. But Ayers said he never really considered them.
“When I came here, it wasn't about the money. It was about the place and the people,” Ayers said. “I've had opportunities and people say, ‘It's a better job. It's a higher level. It's more money.' But more money doesn't mean it's a better job. I truly believe that, for me, this is the best job in the country.”
Ayers grew up in Cincinnati, playing for Glen Este High School and later for Georgetown College in Kentucky. He was an all-district linebacker and also played on the offensive line. In the spring, he was a catcher on the baseball team.
After serving in the Marines and going back home to work on a garbage truck, Ayers went back to school at Georgetown and became a graduate assistant on the football team. A year later, he was made defensive coordinator. From there, he went to Newberry and then Richmond before accepting an assistant job at Wofford under head coach Buddy Sasser in 1980. Ayers became head coach at East Tennessee State in 1985, but much of his heart was still in Spartanburg.
“I knew that to be the head coach here, I would have to go away first,” Ayers said. “That's the way it worked out.”
ETSU went 0-10 under Ayers in his debut season but turned it around to 6-5 the next year. After going 5-6 in 1987, including a remarkable upset of N.C. State, Wofford athletics director Danny Morrison, now president of the NFL's Panthers, came calling. They met halfway between Johnson City, Tenn., and Spartanburg at a place called the Biltmore Dairy Bar in Asheville, N.C.
“He wined and dined me with a $1.50 milkshake,” Ayers said.
Since going 24-30 overall in the first five years in the Southern Conference, the Terriers are 82-39 with one losing campaign in the last decade. In league play, they have become a perennial power at 53-23 during that time.
Ayers has done it partly by surrounding himself with coaches who are as loyal as he is to Wofford. Seven of them played under him. Offensive coordinator Wade Lang also is in his 25th season with the Terriers. Defensive coordinator Nate Woody is in his 22nd season. Recruiting coordinator Jack Teachey, who played for Ayers at ETSU, is in his 19th season on the Wofford staff.
“Coach Ayers is demanding but fair. That's what you want from somebody you work for,” Lang said. “He's not going to ask you to do something that he wouldn't do himself. He'll let you do what you want to do with the expectation that you get the job done. If you don't get the job done, he wants to know why.”
Offensive line coach Eric Nash, a former honorable mention All-American for the Terriers, has been on the staff for 10 years.
“He is the reason I came back,” Nash said. “He's a great man. He's a great coach and great at football and all that. But he's a great man. He cares about people. I've never been anywhere else, but you hear stories about how it's not like that at other places. It makes you appreciate what you have. He understands that coaches have families and other parts of our lives as well. There are places we could go and make a whole lot more money, I'm sure. But sometimes there are more important things in life. Coaching football is about so much more than winning games.”
Through the years, Ayers has certainly mellowed. He's no longer the coach who once wrapped a metal trash can around his head to motivate players before a game.
“When he came here in 1980, he was a lunatic. I mean certifiable psycho,” Lang said. “Now he is a completely different guy. He was a lot rougher. As time has gone by, he has found better ways to get done what needs to get done and to lead people. He handles problems on the front end before they happen.”
Ayers also has become more spiritual through the years and said that also has played a role in his coaching style. So, too, has his wife, Julie, whom he married in 1976.
“I would not be the person I am without her and my family,” Ayers said. “She has been so patient and so strong and so understanding. I spent more time with other people's kids than I did my own. It hasn't been easy for her, but she stuck with me and supported me.”
Ayers is 63, but retirement doesn't seem anywhere close.
“Ten more years,” Lang said. “Then he might start thinking about it.”
“I've been fortunate and blessed to stay pretty healthy,” Ayers said. “I try to work out with the kids sometimes, although I sure feel it the next day.
“The big thing for me has always been those kids and the staff I've been able to have with me. I love being around people who understand this place, appreciate this place and care about this place as much as I do. The thing we tell recruits is that if you're looking for easy, it's not at 429 North Church Street. It's never easy here.
“I don't know that I'm a great leader. You go through certain things in your life and they touch your mind and your heart. Some things go deep and touch your soul. Those things shape you. Have I failed? Yes, many times. But what I tell our guys is that if you fail, you get up and you fight the fight again. There will be one every day.”
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