After 17 seasons leading the Princeton wrestling program, Chris Ayres is going west to take over as the head wrestling coach at Stanford University. Ayres is recognized by many in the wrestling world for putting Princeton Wrestling on the map and made Jadwin Gymnasium a hub for some of the nation’s top wrestlers.
“Seventeen years at one place is a long time. I was ready for a change,” Ayres told the Daily Princetonian in a phone interview. “I got so much and it was such a great experience at Princeton, but it was time to move on,” he added.
Ayres is a prime example of the underdog story. As an undergraduate student, he walked onto the Lehigh wrestling team, then won the 150-pound Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) title as a junior.
During his senior year, he received All-American honors and placed sixth at the NCAA tournament in the 157 pound event. He set the program record for most wins in a season, with 39, and most career victories (120), solidifying himself as one of Lehigh’s most storied wrestlers.
Upon graduation, he became the assistant coach of the program at Lehigh, helping the team win five straight EIWA teams championships while simultaneously producing 12 All-Americans and two national champions.
When Ayres arrived at Princeton in 2006, he had his work cut out for him. In his first two years, the team finished 0–35. However, Ayres remained committed to setting the program up for long-term success. In his first years at Princeton, he hoped to bring change both to the recruiting process and the way wrestlers would be coached.
“When I came to Princeton, early on I grew so much from the challenges," Ayres told the ‘Prince.’ "In my later years, I was still growing but it was just the same things. I thought having a new challenge would be good for me and my family.”
His aim was to show his athletes the physical demand of Division I college wrestling and inspire his athletes to meet that standard. Former players have spoken highly of Ayres’ ability to instill confidence in each of them — motivating them through the mental challenges of the sport as well as the physical ones.
Associate coach Sean Gray thanked Ayres on X (formerly known as Twitter): "You allowed everyone around you to grow and become the best they could be. A born leader who did things the right way, and showed us the way."
During his first eight years, Ayres worked around the clock to revive the program, with a dedication to the program and to his athletes that was unmatched.
Under his guidance, the program grew tremendously over the past decade. From 2004 to 2009, the Tigers had sent just one wrestler to the NCAA championships and had just three All-Ivy wrestlers. Since 2010, Ayres has helped the team earn 48 bids to the NCAA tournament while coaching 62 All-Ivy wrestlers.
Ayres has coached five All-Americans (Brett Harner ’17, Matthew Kolodzik ’20, Patrick Brucki ’21, Quincy Monday ’23, and Pat Glory ’23) since 2016. Prior to 2016, there had only been eight All-Americans since the start of the program in 1905.
The period from 2016 to 2023 has been the prime of Princeton wrestling. Four third place finishes in the EIWA championships from 2017 to 2022 marked their best performance since 1978. In 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020, Ayres was named the Ivy League Coach of the Year.
In 2017, Ayres was additionally named the EIWA Co-Head Coach of the Year and sent a school record of seven wrestlers to the NCAA championships in Missouri. Soon after, in 2020, he led Princeton to its first Ivy League title since 1986. The Ivy League title was something Ayres had promised former athletic director Gary Walters ’67 upon his hiring in 2006.
When asked about his favorite memory at Princeton, he immediately thought of the 2020 season. “Beating Cornell might be number one,” Ayres said. “When we beat them in 2020, they had the longest Ivy League winning streak of any school.” Ayres also mentioned Glory’s national title and Glory and Monday making it to the NCAA in 2022 finals among notable memories during his time at Princeton.
Glory and Monday’s performance in 2022 marked the first time in school history two Tigers made it as NCAA finalists at once, while the 2023 NCAA championships was the Tiger’s best finish since 1951. Glory won a national championship in the 125 pound division while Monday finished third in the 157 pound division. They would finish 13th as a team in 2023, a program record.
"Ayres shared a vision for this program that I had to be a part of, and instilled honor in being able to represent Princeton on the mat," Monday wrote to the 'Prince'. "He allowed me space to grow into my own kind of leader."
Nevertheless, the wrestling programs remain in solid hands. Sean Gray, the associate head coach is entering his 13th season with the Tigers. Gray, a member of the Virginia Tech Athletic Hall of Fame, has seen all the successes of the Ayres era at Princeton. Joe Dubuque, who is entering his 11th season at Princeton is a true fan favorite. While at Indiana, Dubuque won two national championships in 2005 and 2006 and is regarded as one of the best Garden State wrestlers.
Moreover, three-time All-American Monday joined the coaching staff in the summer as an assistant coach. His experience and mentorship will be valuable to everyone in the program.
"I'll take the lessons learned during my time here as a competitor to continue to push Princeton wrestling towards new heights, this time from the coaching side," Monday added.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Ayres shared his advice for returning wrestlers and new recruits joining the team this winter: “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Princeton isn’t defined by any person. When you are at Princeton, there is a unique connection between you and the place. I hope they soak it up and get the most out of it. I wish I could be there to see them through it, but sometimes change is needed."
Whether it be Dubuque, Gray, or another candidate that receives the sought-after promotion to head coach of the program, they will have massive shoes to fill.
Ayres’ daughter, Chloe Ayres ’25, joined the team last season and will continue her academic and athletic career at Princeton.
"Nothing but gratitude for this guy after 17 years of pouring his heart and soul into our program," shared John, athletic directory at Princeton in an X post in appreciation of Ayres. "Thanks for leaving us far better than you found us. You’ll always be a Tiger."
Nearly two decades and an impressive legacy at Princeton behind him, Ayres looks forward to bringing his energy to the Cardinals.
"The goal is the same. I want to win a national championship at Stanford. The experience of working at schools like Princeton and Stanford allows me to work with unique students who want the most out of all areas of their life," Ayres said.
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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