Princeton Head Coach Chris Ayres (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
It was the summer of 2006. Coach Chris Ayres left his comfortable assistant coaching job at perennial powerhouse Lehigh to become the head coach at Princeton. Why do I say comfortable? Well, Lehigh was, essentially, a top ten team year in and year out. Princeton was constantly in the basement of the Ivy League standings. Coach Ayres knew he had a tall order ahead of him. How tall exactly? In his first two seasons, the team had a dual meet record of 0-35. Yes, that is not a typo. Zero and thirty-five. Ayres was no stranger to putting in hard work, even if his results did not show it as much as he'd like. He was, what I consider, a late bloomer himself. He walked onto the Lehigh team without ever winning a state medal in high school. With determination, and finally getting things to "click" on the mat, Ayres earned All-American honors at 157 lbs. Plus, his 120 career wins are good enough for second all-time in Lehigh History. Only Jon Trenge has more, while Lehigh's latest National Champion, Darian Cruz, is tied with Ayres. He also currently holds the season record for number of wins with 39, while never missing a dual meet in 4 years.
Looking at how far Princeton has come, it is literally night and day. From being dead last in the Ivy League every year, unable to bring a complete ten-man line up to dual meets, to now being ranked in the top 25 every year and winning the Ivy League Wrestling Title in 2020. Coincidentally, this title was the university's 500th Ivy League title across all thirty-seven varsity sports. Princeton is the first Ivy League school to reach this monumental achievement. The wrestling team will always be the face of the university's 500th Ivy League Championship and be forever etched into the university's athletic department's history. This is a huge deal. "Well, maybe until another sports program wins the school's 1,000th title," Coach Ayres jokes. This Ivy League Championship was the wrestling program's first in 34 years. The team has become one of the most respected teams on campus and Coach Ayres feels like there is more to come. This is no short feat, with the rich tradition and vast quantity of sports offered. But before we discuss the future, let's look more in-depth at what got them here.
Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Princeton wrestling. Coach Chris Ayres is one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the nation. Things may seem like a well-oiled machine now. But they were not always that way. When he first got the job, he explained, there simply were not enough "people." When it came to support staff, coaches, and wrestlers. The "people" aspect was the first hurdle to overcome. "It was the best time I never want to have again" is what Ayres said about his first few years. This is where he learned to motivate, and focus on the good outcomes, no matter how big or small. Plus, he had to rally, not only his wrestlers, but also the staff, community, and rest of the university behind him and his goals, which were lofty at that time. Imagine what people were thinking, "You want to be a top ten team in the nation, and you can't even field a full team?" This did not deter Ayres and his mission. With motivation and his "going to the good" model, things started to turn around.
Sitting down with Coach Ayres, I asked him where he got this positive lifestyle from. He accredited much of his coaching style to the legendary Lehigh coach, Greg Strobel. Sadly, we recently lost Coach Strobel in October of 2020. Anyone in the wrestling community knew how incredible Strobel was, both on and off the wrestling mat. Coach Ayres told me a story of when he was wrestling for Lehigh, and Strobel was his coach. They flew out to wrestle Oregon State, the alma mater of Strobel. After a shutout loss, the team was in the locker room, expected to be screamed at. Coach Strobel entered the room quietly and said in a passive voice, "Well, it could have been worse." Now, just imagine all the puzzled looks on the wrestlers' faces, after an embarrassing shutout loss. Coach Strobel continued, "You all could have gotten pinned."
This was the type of positive attitude that Ayres transferred into his coaching style. There always must be some positive out of a negative situation. This is what his phrase "going to the good" means. As an example, he would never focus on the team results, rather individual highlights to show progression, even if it was a tiny improvement from the previous week. What's the old saying? "Rome wasn't built in a day" or "slow and steady wins the race." Whichever you prefer, Ayres had to be somewhat creative and highlight the flashes of greatness that his wrestlers would portray on the mat and in the classroom. Mind you, he was one of the youngest coaches to be a head coach of a Division 1 program, at only 32 years of age. He had to be years ahead of his time when it came to patience and wisdom but required the energy of a young and hungry new head coach.
Ayres's first year at Princeton was challenging. With only thirteen wrestlers on the roster, it was impossible to field a complete dual meet lineup. It's very easy to see how the team went winless in its first thirty-five attempts with Ayres in charge. It takes a special character to be able to gain the trust of these student-athletes while they keep losing. Ayres explained he quickly realized how much of a toll the demands of academics took on his athletes. Practices were (and still are) "light and fun" to keep wrestlers motivated, as they eventually "bought-in" to Ayres and his ways. Any successful program needs this to achieve goals. Lastly, he did not waste much time focusing on the negative challenges and issues. "Positivity breeds positivity. Negativity breeds negativity." This line from my conversation with Coach Ayres really stuck with me. It seems like something the fictional character, and AFC Richmond coach, Ted Lasso, would say. If you have not seen this show on Apple TV, I highly recommend it.
Associate Head Coach Sean Gray (left) and Ayres (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
After the first initial years of hiccups, things started coming together for Ayres and the Princeton squad. Once they placed third in the Ivy League somewhere around year five of Ayres being at the helm, he noticed things starting to come together. A few potentially program-changing wrestlers committed to the program. He started getting more support, coaching positions he never had before, and the community was beginning to get excited. Then, in March of 2016, Brett Harner became just the ninth All-American in Princeton history when he finished 8h place at the NCAA Championships. Harner was the first All-American under Coach Ayres at Princeton. This was the momentum the program, needed to prove to the EIWA that Princeton was here to stay. It was only a matter of time until prospects like Matt Kolodzik and Pat Glory committed to wrestle for the Tigers out of high school and, ultimately, becoming NCAA All-Americans, and real national championship threats at their respective weights. Glory (listed as JR) is currently ranked second overall in the 125 lb. weight class behind three-time champ from Iowa, Spencer Lee.
If you have been around the Princeton program, you may notice their black and orange wheelbarrow with the Princeton emblem. This is where the team motto #GetIn stems from. It all began with a story from a former wrestler named Mike Alvarez. The story goes something like this… which Coach Ayres warned may or may not be slightly embellished, but it really gets the point across. Back in the early 1900s, there was an amazing tightrope walker. Let's name him Bob. One day he announced he would show up to Niagara Falls and walk across on a tight rope. Due to windy, water, etc., it was a very arduous mission. A huge crowd showed up to watch him fail miserably. To everyone's surprise, he makes it no problem. He tells the crowd something along the lines of "come back tomorrow, for something better." A larger crowd shows up the next day, and he says he will walk across without his long balancing stick. Everyone gasps in horror, as they all pretty much think they will see Bob die today. Surprisingly, Bob walks across the falls without his balancing stick. Everyone is amazed, and Bob says something like, "Come back tomorrow for something more spectacular."
The next day, an even larger crowd shows up. He tells them all he will ride his bicycle across the falls. The crowd, as I imagine, is probably making side bets on whether this lunatic makes it across or not. Guess what. Yep, he makes it across. The crowd goes wild. Yet again, he announces, "Come back tomorrow and it will be my best performance yet." The next day comes. The crowd is the largest it's ever been. There is a big-time reporter there writing an article about Bob and his dangerous achievements. Today's challenge is an empty wheelbarrow. As the crowd settles in and quiets down, he asks the simple question, "Who thinks I can walk across this rope with a wheelbarrow?" Everyone looks around confused. The feat with the bike was way more difficult than this. This should be easy money for him. He asks a few people in the crowd if they think he can do it.
They all reply similarly, "Yes, of course."
Bob looks at the reporter and asks the same question. The reporter looks at him and says, "Absolutely, you can. You are the best tight rope walker the world has ever seen."
Bob replies again, "Are you sure, though?"
The reporter says with 100% confidence, "Yes."
With a smirk on his face, Bob walks over to the wheelbarrow and looks the reporter dead in the eyes. He smacks the inside of the wheelbarrow with his hand as it makes a "clank, clank, clank" noise. "Well then, get in," he said to the reporter.
What does this mean? Bob emphasized that if you truly believed he would make the dangerous trek across the falls, you'd have no problem doing it with him. This draws parallels to the Princeton program. There is a lot of trust the athletes have in the coaching staff. The wrestlers have "bought into" Ayres and his staff's ways. As cheesy of a comparison it may be, they entrust the staff, so they have no issue "getting into the wheelbarrow." Drawing other parallels to the tale, it took Bob a lot of courage to get the crowd excited and coming back each day. Bob can be compared to Ayres in this way, as he had to get his athletes excited to come back and work, even if winning matches was not always the result. The story summed up, according to Ayres, "Yeah, you believe in me. But… do you trust me?" Because of this philosophy, Princeton has done more winning than losing as of late. Coach Ayres contributes a great deal of this to the New Jersey Regional Training Center (NJRTC).
"The RTC is one thing that has really elevated our program," Ayres said. At first, it was a way of "keeping up with the Joneses," now it's almost a requirement for recruits. The NJRTC has been making a ton of noise lately, both on social media and on the mats. Head Coach Reese Humphrey has had his share of wild, and sometimes, viral videos showcasing athleticism. When it comes to results since the start of 2020, there is a valid argument that can be made where NJRTC is a top-3 RTC program in the country. Both former and current Princeton wrestlers Matt Kolodzik, Pat Glory, and Leonard Merkin all made a U-23 World Team. Unfortunately, the championships were canceled overseas. Coach mentioned that Princeton had 7 All Americans in the top 8 at the most recent U-23 trials. These performances were enough for a runner-up showing based on team points of all participating RTCs.
Success is coming at all levels, not just the university level. Post collegiate athletes like Tyler Graff and Pat Downey made world teams repping the NJRTC singlet. Nate Jackson (Princeton's volunteer assistant) won the U.S. Open and has wrestled nearly non-stop on various wrestling cards during the pandemic. If this isn't enough, recently signed athlete, J'den Cox just made the U.S. World Team for the World Championships in October. Princeton is now the only program involved with the NJRTC. Originally, it was a joint effort between them, and Rutgers before Rutgers branched out and started their own. There are no hard feelings between the two programs. Being 45 minutes apart is tough and makes logistics more difficult. This has not slowed the NJRTC down at all. Get out your sunglasses because the future continues to look very bright in Princeton!
Chris Ayres with his daughter Chloe (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Coach Ayres is optimistic about the future of the program. He mentions three main goals in line for the next half-decade. Firstly, his main goal is to get that first NCAA team trophy, while continuing to win in both the Ivy League and EIWA Conference. Coach thinks the program has what it takes can be a top 10 team right away. Secondly, he is ready to start looking into facilities upgrades. This seems to be the new way of improving college wrestling marketability. These types of upgrades are occurring across the nation with programs of all sizes. Everything from new mats, to the renovated locker room, upgrades to a brand-new state-of-the-art complex for wrestling only. Thirdly, Coach Ayres wishes to introduce women's wrestling to the university as an official NCAA-sanctioned sport. Women's wrestling is very close to the heart of the Ayres family. Chris's daughter, Chloe, was a very successful wrestler in high school and now attends the university her father coaches. Coach Chris Ayres's wife, Lori, is heavily involved with getting communities behind the sport of women's wrestling. She is an advocate for the sport we all need when it comes to bridging the gap between men's and women's wrestling. In the coming years, we will see an uptick in programs that sanction women's wrestling, and she will have played a large part in it.
After sitting down with Coach Ayres, I cannot help but root for the program even more than I already have been. Besides their fantastic school colors (shoutout Northampton K-Kids), he literally built the program from the bottom. His infectious positive attitude, along with his patience, are not common characteristics in the sports world (especially the latter). Everyone wants to see results right away, or the coach gets fired. It goes without saying, we need to send props to the Princeton athletic department, university, and community and everyone involved who had faith from the beginning. They gave Ayres the chance to create something special from the ground up, and they trusted that he would do it the right way. Referencing my little story before, they got into that black and orange wheelbarrow while Chris Ayres walked that tight rope over Niagara Falls.
I feel like a broken record when I say this, but Ayres is one of a kind. It takes a special type of person to do what he did. Was it easy? Heck no. Did Ayres ever think about leaving when he felt like his efforts were maybe a bit unnoticed and a possibly unmatched? Of course - many coaches do. But it would have gone against everything he has preached over the years. Stick to the positive attitude and good things will eventually go your way. Sixteen years later, no one would have ever predicted Princeton to be a top-10 team. In the present time, it seems inevitable.
My final, most important, question to Coach Ayres may help settle the ultimate debate: Pork Roll or Taylor Ham? Being a New Jersey native, no surprise that his answer was Taylor Ham, and he jokingly stated he did not know what this "pork roll" mystery meat was. Doing my own highly educational research, I ran a Twitter poll. 67% of the people said it was pork roll - maybe because I have a slightly larger Pennsylvania following? Anyway, the debate lives on for at least another day.
Speaking of Twitter, follow Princeton Wrestling on their new Twitter handle. They need some more followers after their previous one was permanently suspended due to the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act." They are back and ready for followers.Princeton Wrestling