Noie: Departure of Notre Dame hoops assistant coach Ryan Ayers doesn't feel right

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Something’s up because any way you read the news that Ryan Ayers no longer is an assistant coach for the Notre Dame men’s basketball program, it doesn’t add up.

A tersely-worded statement that dropped late Monday morning on social media said that Ayers “is pursuing other opportunities.” That might mean coaching basketball at a similar high-major school. It also might mean searching for Bigfoot.

Assistant coaches can go do something different tomorrow if they so desire. Few college assistants would choose mid-September as an exit point. If Ayers wanted out, he’s leaving in May or in June before the normal summer evaluation period of July back when the world was normal.

Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame would be far into its in-season mode. Individual and group workouts would be in full swing. The regular-season schedule would be set. So many plans would be in place. The hoops train would be moving, and Ayers would be on it, not back at the station with his bags packed and bound for who-knows-where.

Assistant coaches also generally tend to not want to leave their alma mater. Unless there’s no choice.

A 2009 Notre Dame graduate and former Irish player — Ayers averaged 6.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 117 career games — is afforded a better send-off than 19 words on Twitter. There’s a celebratory victory lap/dinner with coaching colleagues and former teammates. Stories are shared, like the time Ayers sank a Purcell Pavilion record nine 3-pointers in a game.

For someone of his Notre Dame background and basketball bones, there has to be one person in the program willing to say something publicly.

Great guy to work with, great opportunity for him moving forward.

As Monday rolled on, an expanding blanket of silence spoke loudest. Phone and text messages left Monday for the 34-year-old Ayers were not returned. Irish coach Mike Brey had no comment about one of his guys. A university spokesperson said the program would have no further statement. Former Irish assistants and players often used one word to describe their feelings — stunned.

Ayers no longer is part of the program, and seemingly everyone inside Rolfs Hall believes it best to just move on and do so quickly. However painful that is. And it is painful.

That’s why this one doesn’t feel right. Ayers gave the Irish men’s basketball program eight years — four as a player, four as a coach. The Irish men’s basketball program gave him three sentences on his way out.

Ayers returned to Notre Dame in June 2016 after former Irish guard/assistant coach Martin Ingelsby left to become a head coach at Delaware. Long before a vacancy opened on his staff, Brey ear-marked Ayers as the one former player he coveted as an assistant. Questions about filling future staff roles always started and ended with one name.


When the day finally arrived to bring him back, Brey promised to bring Ayers back. Whatever it was, he had it. He understood what it was like to attend Notre Dame. He understood what it was like to play at Notre Dame. He could relate to everything that came down the college basketball pike for today’s players. He once lived it.

Brey saw in Ayers what he covets on his staff — stability and consistency, a certain steadiness from a goal-driven guy who understood the university’s bigger mission. Someone who also owned a clear campus view of the bigger college basketball picture.

When he was arrived after two seasons as an assistant at Bucknell, Ayers was welcome to stay for as long as Brey was there. Who knows, maybe one day, Ayers would even be the head coach.

“I want to be a confidence-giver and that’s something I learned from Coach Brey,” Ayers told the Tribune that first summer. “The pride I have in this program and this university, I’m not going to let anything slip.”

Apparently, something did.

Notre Dame advanced to the NCAA tournament during Ayers’ first season, but hasn’t since been back. Ayers oversaw the development of the guards, tutoring the likes of former Irish T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger during their collegiate careers. Neither one ever elevated their games from one year to the next. They were good, but never good enough. Was it them? Was it Ayers? Was it a little of both?

Bringing aboard Ayers at the same time as another former Irish player (there’s a theme there) in Ryan Humphrey in 2016 and after two straight NCAA Elite Eights, there was bound to be growing pains. There were, be it in games, in recruiting, in the overall seeing of the game. But it seemed to settle down last year as the two finally settled in. All seemed well. And then Monday.

Just as Brey didn’t look far in hiring Ayers, he didn’t look long for his replacement. Another former Irish, Scott Martin, was named Monday as interim assistant coach. Martin returned to the program last season as development and recruiting coordinator. Like with Ayers, Martin was seen by Brey as a gotta-have assistant coach somewhere down the line. Now he is one. Expect that interim tag to disappear somewhere down the road.

Kind of like Ayers.

Notre Dame assistant coach Ryan Ayers is now a former Notre Dame assistant coach after Monday’s announcement.