Ayers builds Wofford into FCS power in his own way
By JEFFREY COLLINS
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) After more than two decades, Wofford coach Mike Ayers has turned his Terriers into a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse.
He has done it his way, making the playoffs in four of the past five years. The team runs the option with precision. The undersized players on defense always seem to be in the right place. And Ayers made Wofford more of a family than a team. Six of his 10 assistants played for him or have coached with him for more than 20 years.
It all comes together to create a team that fits well at the academically rigorous private school of just 1,500 students, where the average freshman this year had a 1,261 SAT score and a 3.48 grade-point average.
"All of them understand the culture of Wofford," Ayers said. "All of them understand what it is to go through and be a student-athlete. It's a lot of times difficult to explain to people about the place and about what it takes."
And the team matches the personality of its coach, too. At first glance, Ayers appears to be a strict authoritarian with a quirky, no-nonsense personality. Just this week, he said Wofford's opponent in the second round of the FCS playoffs, Northern Iowa, was "coached really well" and as "sound as a dollar."
But Ayers is also the guy who let the 4-year-old son of his tight ends coach - who also happens to be Ayers' grandson - ride the team bus home after a road game this season. The 63-year-old coach reached the finals of a local "Dancing With the Stars" competition and has a black belt in karate and was a catcher, gymnast and wrestler in high school.
Ayers spent three years as an assistant at Wofford in the early 1980s, but he didn't begin shaping the program until 1987, when an athletic director impressed with how Ayers' East Tennessee State team upset North Carolina State that season invited the young coach to talk to him over milkshakes at a dairy bar in Asheville, N.C. Ayers mulled over the offer to coach for a few days before accepting.
He immediately began building the team the way he wanted. Wofford's offensive and defensive coordinators have been with Ayers for more than 20 years.
The team runs its option offense with precision, leading the Southern Conference in rushing five of the past six seasons. Junior fullback Eric Breitenstein was named this season's offensive player of the year in the conference despite running for about 300 fewer yards because of his all-around skills.
"He's one of those guys that does so much when the ball is not in his hands. I would say that he probably has more knockdown blocks than our offensive linemen," Ayers said. "He's just a phenomenal guy when the ball is not in his hands. He'll search some guy out and put him on his face."
Wofford's defenses are almost always undersized, but manage to be in the right place and rarely miss the tackle. This year's starters average just 218 pounds, with just one player over 245 pounds.
"They're fighters," Ayers said. "They will compete. You have to prove to them that you are going to beat them."
Ayers took a Division II team that went 1-10 in 1987 with four straight losing seasons and immediately improved them to 5-5. Five winning seasons and two Division II playoff appearances would follow before the Terriers decided to join Division I and the Southern Conference.
It took Ayers just seven years to win the title in one of the toughest FCS leagues. He kept building, and the Terriers went to back-to-back playoffs in 2007 and 2008 before suddenly falling to 3-8 in 2009. Ayers blamed injuries and youth for his team with the worst record since he took over, but privately, he was at a loss to why his team fell from 9-3 to 3-8 in one season.
The next year, he challenged the team to redeem itself. The Terriers went 10-3, winning a share of the league title, but lost to Georgia Southern in the FCS quarterfinals. Tears filled Ayers eyes after that game as he tried to talk about how much they meant to them.
This season, Wofford has proven it's back. Its eight wins are about par for the past decade. This year's seniors also will likely become winners in life, too. Of the college's roughly 16,000 living alumni, about one in five are doctors, lawyers or the president or owners of their own corporations or organizations.
"Every one of them, you knew where you stood with them," Ayers said. "When a guy's 18 and he's got character, he's going to have character when he's 28, 38 or 108."
Updated December 2, 2011