The Ayres Way
PU Wrestling Coach Chris Ayres Builds a Winning Program
By Bill Alden | Portrait by Frank Wojciechowski
Settling gingerly onto a couch in the living room of his Princeton home this July days after undergoing a hip replacement, Chris Ayres laughs through the pain, recounting the beginning of his wrestling career as a fourth-grader.
“I lost my first 14 matches, but then I won my last four,” says Ayres with his face creasing into a grin before he chuckles at the memory. “I wasn’t good at it right away but I loved it.”
That rough debut proved to be a harbinger of things to come as Ayres has gone on to fight and win a number of uphill battles in his wrestling career, fueled by his passion for the sport.
After not medaling in the New Jersey state championships during his career at Newton High, Ayres spent a year competing as a postgraduate at the Blair Academy and then walked on the Lehigh University wrestling team. He ended up as one of the greatest wrestlers ever for the Mountain Hawks, setting a program record with 120 victories and twice earning the school’s Outstanding Athlete award.
Ayres, though, failed in his bid to make the U.S. team for the world championships, and turned to coaching as an assistant at Lehigh. He spent five years learning the ropes and preparing himself to guide a college program.
In 2006, he undertook a massive challenge, becoming the head coach of a moribund Princeton University wrestling program that was mired in the cellar of the Ivy League. The Tigers went 0-35 in Ayres’ first two seasons but, true to character, he kept plugging.
Breaking through with a third-place finish in the Ivy League in the 2009-10 season, Princeton has emerged as a force. In the last three years, Princeton has placed second in the Ivies and has been third at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championships. Last winter, the Tigers took 15th at the NCAA championships and produced a program-record three All-Americans.
Ayres will tell you that this reversal of fortune has been an arduous process.
“It is a gradual thing; people think with organizational transformation there is one thing that does it, but it was just a lot of things,” says Ayres, 45. “We finally got enough coaches and we hired the right coaches. We were getting more recruits.”
Looking back, Ayres views the 2009-10 campaign as a key turning point in the rebuilding effort.
“I would say the one season it turned around was when we took third in the Ivies,” asserts Ayres.
“We hadn’t won in the Ivies, and all of a sudden we won all of these Ivy matches. It was a big jump from never winning to winning a bunch in a row. That was a big year, that was one of my most fun years.”
Photo by Princeton University Office of Athletic Communications
Reflecting on his wrestling career, his interest in the sport took a big jump in his sophomore year of high school when he encountered an international wrestling legend in Philadelphia.
“I was at the Palestra and this Russian guy Sergei Beloglazov did a clinic,” says Ayres of Beloglazov, a winner of two Olympic golds and a six-time world champion who later coached him at Lehigh.
“He was doing all of this wild stuff I had never seen before in terms of technique. I was mesmerized — I didn’t know you could do those things. I was floored by this guy. All of a sudden, I saw this art that was wrestling and I wanted to figure it out. I followed this guy around. That is a moment when I really got into wrestling.”
Inspired by the lessons he learned from Beloglazov, Ayres became a star at Newton High, not losing a match in regular season competition as a senior. But when he fell short of his goal of winning a state championship, failing to medal at the NJSIAA Championships, Ayres nearly left wrestling.
“At that moment, I took my ball and went home and said ‘I am done with wrestling, that is it,’” says Ayres.
“In reality I was being a little bit of a baby. Fortunately, my dad and my mom and a coach from elementary school pulled me aside and said, ‘you are going to keep going, you are going to wrestle.’”
Doing a post-graduate year at the Blair Academy, Ayres enjoyed a transformative experience in the classroom and on the mat.
“Coach [Jeff] Buxton said ‘if you are going to prove yourself, you are going to have to take honors courses at Blair.’ I hadn’t done homework in years,” says Ayres.
“I took honors physics, I took this calc course — they loaded me up. I really focused, I knew what I wanted to do and I got all As. All through my Newton career, I didn’t have any state placers or champs in my room, so I thought they worked so hard. If I can’t beat them, they must be doing so much work. So now I am living with these guys, and wrestling with them every day, and these guys don’t work very hard. I get in the room with these guys and I am beating them. That was when I knew I belonged. I always had this confidence that no one is going to outwork me, and that was true most of the time. In competing in high school, I had trouble. Now it was starting to come out on the mat and I was starting to show that same confidence in competition.”
That confidence helped Ayres go from walk-on to a Lehigh legend.
“Every year, I got a bit stronger,” says Ayres, who won the EIWA title at 150 pounds as a junior and placed sixth in the NCAA Championships at 157 as a senior, earning All-America honors.
“I was one of the best technically, but some guys overpowered me. The biggest thing is your mind — that is the thing you keep working on. Now I was at a high level, I had beaten All-Americans and I was an All-American. What separates everyone at the end it is what is in your head.”
Earning a degree in marketing, Ayres assumed that he would get into business after graduation, but a summer internship changed his thinking.
“I was working at a corporation, BASF. I’ve got a cubicle, I’ve got to wear a suit every day,” says Ayres, the first member of his family to attend college.
“I go to the cubicle and look at a spreadsheet all day. It was the best internship I ever had, because I realized that it was not what I was going to do. I love wrestling. I decided that I would go to grad school for education and still compete.”
Photo by Frank Wojciechowski
While competing at a high level, taking fourth at the U.S. Senior Open Nationals and at the U.S. World Team Trials, Ayres gradually realized his true calling.
“That is where the coaching bug really kicked in because I was helping coach while I was trying to compete,” says Ayres.
“I had a successful post-college career, but you have to be No. 1 in the U.S. to be on the World Team. I was as high as fourth and that just doesn’t do it. When I lay in bed, I slowly stopped thinking so much about me and I found myself thinking about the guys on the Lehigh team, and that he could do this or someone else could do this. I had a really easy time hanging them up; it was time. Once I knew I was done with competition, I really started coaching.”
After five years as an assistant at Lehigh, where he helped the program win five straight EIWA titles, Ayres was ready to take the next step and move into a head coaching position. It was his wife, Lori, who made him aware of the Princeton opportunity.
“I had an interview with Hofstra lined up that I was going to go do and I heard her say, ‘hey honey the Princeton job is open,’” says Ayres.
“They wrestled 20 matches the year before and they lost them all. I said ‘no way, are you kidding? I don’t know how to build it out.’ She said ‘just give it a shot, check it out,’ so I applied.”
Speaking to a number of Princeton wrestling alums after throwing his hat in the ring, Ayres was impressed by the passion they displayed for the program and became serious about his pursuit of the Tiger position.
Getting the Princeton job in 2006, Ayres quickly realized that he faced a number of obstacles in turning the Tigers around.
“I didn’t know how bad it was, it was tough,” acknowledges Ayres, noting that three rising seniors quit the team before that school year began.
“It was a great experience, I had to figure out how to motivate in the most trying of situations. Thank God for the kids on that team, it would have been so easy for any of them to just walk away. We couldn’t beat a D-III team that first year; Blair would have killed us, but that is what we had. What we did well is that we got them on board in relation to ‘hey, you are really important for the future of this program. We are going to build something great and you guys have to stick it out so we can do that.’ I learned a lot; that was the toughest challenge of my life but it was really rewarding. It shaped who I am as a coach.”
Even though Princeton was the doormat of Ivy League, Ayres shot for the moon in his recruiting pitch.
“I am selling the school really hard and I am selling what we are going to be,” says Ayres, noting that he lost a number of recruiting battles to Ivy schools during his time at Lehigh.
“I would say to the recruits from my first year on, ‘hey, we are going to win the Ivy League and we are going to be top 10 in the country in the NCAAs. We are going to have multiple All Americans and national champions and we are going to win the EIWA.’
“This is when we are 0-35, and most of them would sit there and say ‘this guy is out of his mind,’ but I would get a few guys who would buy in. That is what I was looking for. What is funny about saying that is that all of those things are happening. You have to have that ability to see further in order to get everyone there.”
Princeton associate head coach Sean Gray, who is entering his ninth year with the program, notes that Ayres’ vision was multifaceted.
“It was really taking our experience and starting to set the foundation for what we wanted to be, which is today,” says Gray.
“That included everything from how to do we pull the alumni in to how do we build a recruiting system, and a system for everything. One of our themes here is systems and using everybody’s expertise to put systems in place that will propel the program forward, but also that we can tweak year to year.”
In creating those systems, Ayres set the tone for his staff. “It is ‘don’t take short cuts, do things the right way.’ That is first and foremost,” adds Gray, when assessing the personal qualities that distinguish Ayres.
“He came up with this quote and we all use it for the program — it is ‘find a way to win’ and just having a relentless work ethic. There are times where he is there at 6 in the morning to 8:30 at night.”
But along with that work ethic comes a personal touch as the down-to-earth Ayres has a knack for connecting with everybody.
“For Chris, it is simple. He is going to love you when he needs to love you and be hard on you when he needs to be hard on you, and that is it,” says Gray.
“I think those are good qualities of a coach, you have to have many hats. I think with him all the way down, what resonates through the staff and the program and anybody you will come in contact with is that those guys are a lot of fun, they are great to be around. He is able to blend all of those hats together and the staff and the guys love him for that.”
Ayres loves the guys he has on his current squad. “It has been so rewarding, the kids we have now are special,” says Ayres, who guided the Tigers to a 21-19 dual win over Lehigh last winter, the program’s first win over the Mountain Hawks since 1968.
“That year we took third was a big turning point,” he says. “I really think that last year was our next turning point for what we really want to be. Nobody graduates who started last year. We have a good crew of freshmen coming in. This is the team we have been envisioning.”
There were amazing moments last winter for Ayres in another arena as his daughter, Chloe, won the title at 105 pounds in the first-ever girls’ NJSIAA Championships as a Princeton High School sophomore.
“It has been such a cool experience for me as a dad to have that with her,” says Ayres, who has taken an active role in local wrestling, coaching at the Princeton Wrestling Club (PWC) and working on beefing up the New Jersey freestyle program.
“I never expected her involvement; it has been great. She just placed in Fargo, which is her first time placing in a national tournament. She is all into it; I am so proud as a dad. It is not her winning, it is what she puts into it. I would put her work ethic up to anyone, boy or girl. She works her tail off, and she is really committed.”
Photo by Princeton University Office of Athletic Communications
For Princeton star wrestler Matt Kolodzik, having a coach like Ayres has inspired him to work harder.
“I could tell you about the technique he has taught me and all the hours he has put into me and everything he has done to impact my personal growth, but I think that is kind of minuscule in comparison to the fact that Coach Ayres is such a good role model, not just for me, but for all of the guys he coaches,” says Kolodzik.
“I have never seen anybody as happy as he is and who works as hard as he does. He is such a hard worker, but he also does it out of love. That is something you want to find in life.”
Kolodzik notes that Ayres doesn’t hesitate to go the extra mile for his athletes.
“Coach Ayres is the only coach that will be like ‘oh so you want to come in and get a workout in at 6 a.m. three days a week. All right, let’s do it, and if you can’t find a partner to do that with you, I will be your partner,’” says Kolodzik, the program’s first three-time All-American who has placed fifth and third at 149 in that last two NCAA Championships and will be taking a year away from school to train for a shot at the 2020 Olympics.
“That is not an isolated thing, that is regular. What is really impressive is that I will come in because I am restless from the night before a match and roll into Jadwin Gym at 5 a.m. and he is there. He is there at night because of the PWC guys.”
With his older brother, Daniel, having wrestled for Princeton from 2008-2012, Kolodzik has known Ayres for years and has developed a bond with him.
“I know coaches that are businesslike all the time and authoritarian. The great thing about Coach Ayres is that he is all of that, and then he is the type of guy you sit down with and grab a coffee with and talk about anything but wrestling,” says Kolodzik.
“He is very laid back too, which is crazy,” adds Kolodzik. He wants the best for every individual to a fault. He loves every kid on the team. Every college coach has to confront the question of what is best for the individual over what is best for the team and vice versa. Coach Ayres, to a tee, always cares about what is best for the kid.”
Seeing Princeton develop into one of the top teams in the East has been heartening for Kolodzik and his teammates.
“It has meant the world. It is hard to be retrospective when you are just in the grind of ‘I have got to get better,’” says Kolodzik.
“When you do take those moments at the banquet every year to look back, it is like ‘wow we really have come a long way.’ The hindsight is always one of those things nice to have and revel in. It is a lot of admiration for Coach Ayres and everything he has put into the program.”
In the view of Ayres, the Tigers should be even better this winter.
“There is no reason we can’t win the Ivy and the EIWA and finally place in the top 10 at the NCAAs; we need a national champion,” says Ayres.
“We have this vision hanging on the wall in our wrestling room; we wrote it my second year. It is basically a story, called a vivid description. You write out what the future is going to look like — some parts of it were pretty funny. In one part, it says youngsters will be sitting in their rooms with posters of Princeton wrestlers on their walls and they will be staying up late at night trying to get the grades so they can one day wrestle like their heroes on the Princeton wrestling team. There is NCAA championship talk. Some of those things are happening. There were times I looked at it and I was thinking ‘are we ever going doing any of that stuff?’ I didn’t know, but we were going to keep working towards it.”
Driven by Ayres’ unflagging work ethic, Princeton wrestling is writing a pretty amazing story as it looks to fulfill that vision.
Photo by Frank Wojciechowski