Walking out the door of a potential prospect’s home after delivering his recruiting pitch a few years back, former Bucknell basketball coach Dave Paulsen felt good about the direction everything was headed.
Not only did Paulsen get the sense that his program was in position to land a wing guard who would go on to be the 2014 Patriot League player of the year, he also discovered a possible future assistant in the kid’s older brother, who had played collegiately at Notre Dame and was in the midst of a professional career in Europe.
As Paulsen left the suburban Philadelphia home, he speed-dialed one of his assistants.
“I said, ‘I think it went well and we have a good shot,’” said Paulsen, now the head coach at George Mason. “I also said, ‘I know one thing. If I ever get the chance at hiring Ryan Ayers as an assistant coach, I’m hiring him.’”
Paulsen had gone to the Ayers home to recruit Cameron Ayers, who would eventually attend Bucknell. The older Ayers brother sat in on the conference and occasionally peppered Paulsen with questions about his younger brother’s role, the system, the coach’s style. Everything.
“He was just impressive to me with his poise, his maturity, his communication skills, the fact that he played at a high level,” Paulsen said. “I tucked that in the back of my head.”
Paulsen had no plans to hire Ayers while his brother was still a player for the Bison. Months after Cameron Ayers graduated in 2014, a spot surfaced on Paulsen’s staff.
He had one guy in mind, a guy that earlier this month officially started his first season as assistant coach back at his alma mater after the last two at Bucknell.
That Mike Brey hired Ayers came as no surprise to Paulsen. He had actually predicted it.
“I figured I would have him for a couple of years then Mike was going to steal him from me,” Paulsen joked. “He was great.”
Back to the Bend
Like Paulsen of a couple years ago, Brey also knew that if the day ever came when he had to hire an assistant, Ayers would be one of the first to get a call. When two vacancies arose last month, Ayers was among those on Brey’s short wish list.
As soon as Ayers saw Brey’s number surface on his cell caller ID, he knew the wheels were in motion for a move to South Bend.
“My head’s spinning a little bit,” Ayes admitted last week, his second official week on the job. “It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m actually here. But it’s been an easy transition.”
Entering his third season as a college assistant, the 29-year-old Ayers didn’t expect to transition from player to assistant so soon. Having grown up around the game – his father Randy has been a head coach in college (Ohio State) and the NBA (Philadelphia) and the two often spent nights at home watching/analyzing games — Ayers figured his career path would lead him into the same business. But not yet.
He spent 2013-14 playing professionally in Finland and playing well. Ayers averaged 13.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 32.7 minutes. He shot 54.7 percent from the field, 46.9 percent from 3 and 89.5 percent from the foul line.
That summer, he was the leading scorer (14.2), on the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni team that captured the $500,000 first prize in The Basketball Tournament. He felt really good about his game and his health and his playing future. He looked forward to getting back overseas for a few more seasons.
When contract talks with several teams never materialized into something solid in the fall of 2014, Ayers was left jobless. Paulsen had a late opening on his staff. So he called Ayers, who decided the time was right to turn the professional page.
“I kind of retired when I was playing my best,” he said. “I was at peace with it. As much as I wanted to go back to Europe and play, I knew coaching was what I wanted to do long-term and it’s something I should invest in now.
“I was like, ‘Wow. This is meant to be.’”
Following the 2014-15 season, Paulsen left for George Mason while Ayers remained at Bucknell. Still, the former Irish swingman left an impression on his old boss, who gave him a chance to have his hands on a little bit of everything – skill development, scouting reports, game analysis, recruiting and offering insights on in-game adjustments.
Paulsen gave Ayers a lot because Ayers got it.
“The nuances of the game come easily to him,” Paulsen said. “He pretty much did everything. As a first-year coach, he was very, very advanced.”
Despite the myriad responsibilities, Ayers often kept it simple. At one point that season, Paulsen had him work with guard Chris Hass, who had been struggling to find a consistent stroke on his 3-point shot. The more Ayers worked with Hass, the more the eventual first team all-league selection regained confidence in his shot.
“He was just really good at giving him one thing to think about and not giving him like 12 things to think about,” Paulsen said. “Ryan understood the psyche of a shooter.”
Ayers also understands the culture and the standards and expectations and the ups and downs of the Notre Dame program. The 2009 graduate lived it. He can relate to coaching up someone like junior-to-be Martinas Geben, who is expected to take a big step after two relatively silent seasons. He understands how to help captain-to-be Steve Vasturia pace himself in preparation for another season of playing heavy minutes. He’s been in the shoes of fellow senior captain V.J. Beachem, expected to make big shots at big times.
When he goes on the road next month and recruits for Notre Dame, he can offer prospects a first-hand account of life as a student-athlete.
“I’ve seen it all; I’ve been through the struggles,” Ayers said. “Hopefully my voice carries some weight.”
That voice often stayed relatively quiet when Ayers was a player. He often chose to lead by example, to be a consistent presence on the practice court, in the locker room and in big Big East games. Now he’s not afraid to speak up and speak loudly as a coach, yet he’ll still pull a guy off to the side for a few quiet words of encouragement.
“I want to be a confidence-giver and that’s something I learned from Coach Brey,” Ayers said. “The pride I have in this program and this university, I’m not going to let anything slip and I understand what the standard is here with effort and pride and playing hard.
“I’m a teacher first and that’s important, but I’m also going to be on these guys to give that effort that we need every day.”