Spartanburg, S.C.—Putting his team through a dry run of the complicated "Wingbone" offense, Wofford College Terriers Head Coach Mike Ayers wipes at the beads of sweat sliding down the back of his neck and soaking the cord that holds his whistle. The South Carolina sun is so intense in August that the assistant coaches all sport matching broad-brimmed straw hats. The pressure is on with the team's opening game only two days away, and it doesn't help that easy passes keep zipping through receivers' hands like so many rays through a palmetto frond. The coach calls for his boys to take a knee: time for the final pep talk before the team hops on the plane for the game at the University of South Florida.
"If there's anything left in the tank at the end of the game," he says, "then we will have lost."
Even with a full tank of effort, the odds of victory aren't good. The Wofford College squad had an unusually high number of seniors on the team last year, which means that they're underclassman-heavy this season—young, small, and inexperienced compared to their peers. "It's a rebuilding year" is the familiar refrain around Spartanburg. But whatever the outcome, the players know that the coach demands only one thing: hard work.
Sports coaches, particularly in football, hold a unique place in society. They become surrogate fathers, teachers, and role models. Hollywood often caricatures them as the demideities of small-town America.
There are countless schools, towns, and cities where the football coach is an institution. But for every George Halas, Vince Lombardi, and Bill Belichick, there are countless others who never coach an NFL squad and sculpt only the rawest of talent. They lead teams with losing records, relying on volunteer staff with a shoestring budget. Most coaches, in short, are average leaders, leading average teams.
Mike Ayers is better than the average coach. He's led the Wofford team for the past 21 seasons. The year before he took over, the team won one game and lost 10. Ayers has notched 144 wins and 102 losses over more than two decades at the helm. Last year, the school finished second in the Southern Conference.
Ayers himself is modest, despite the fact that the local dry cleaner boasts a poster of his stoic visage gazing out over the town's main street. "Look, I'm just a football coach," he says. "It's important to keep the game in perspective—graduation first, championships second."
Roster of scholars. For the Wofford squad, graduation is a given. The team has a reputation among Southern Conference brethren as a bunch of nerds. Some 40 football team alumni have gone on to practice medicine. More than half the current team maintains a GPA above 3.0, despite a large number of science students whose courses include several hours of lab work in addition to practices each week. Led by a physics major at quarterback, the roster includes nuclear and civil engineering students and biology, chemistry, finance, and economics majors. More than a dozen players end up on the conference all-academic team each year. And some of the current players are reading mentors in local schools.
The college sits on 170 acres in the middle of downtown Spartanburg, a town where football is its own religion, with a trinity of teams from high school, college, and the pros. The Carolina Panthers hold their preseason training camp on the college's athletic fields. Jerry Richardson, a Wofford alumnus, owns the team, and the camp attracts fans from around the region to sit on the grassy hills overlooking the field to collect autographs and scope out their favorite stars before the season starts. When the team agreed to base its training camp here in 1995, the Panthers and the school invested heavily in three lush Bermuda grass fields that Ayers and his squad can use for the 49 weeks of the year when camp isn't in session.
Of course, coaching has little to do with the greenness of the grass. For Ayers, his drive comes from the blood. He played football when he was young, and he also went out for baseball, gymnastics, and wrestling. In his spare time, he earned a black belt in karate, struggles with a fishing addiction, and developed a knack for landscape painting.
Students and colleagues are effusive about the man, a devout Christian. "If Mike Ayers doesn't respect you," says Wofford President Benjamin Dunlap, "then you must be a scoundrel."
Ayers was the first in his family to go to college and at one time paid the rent by slinging bags of garbage onto a truck. It taught him the value of hard work and what he calls the "generational impact" that earning a college degree can have, not on just a person but on an entire family. He knows, too, that few if any of his players will go on to make a living in the game. "You learn a lot about yourself when you compete on the field, and that will make you a better doctor or teacher or engineer," Ayers says. "Great doctors and great football players have one thing in common besides their God-given talent—they work hard."