Feb. 16, 2017
By John Heisler
There’s only one.
Athletics at the University of Notre Dame has a long history of its graduates occupying high—profile coaching positions. Notre Dame alumni Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy between them won seven consensus national titles in football, and they remain the two names atop college football’s all-time winning percentage chart.
Additional Notre Dame graduates have been some of the longest-tenured Irish head coaches at the University—42 years by former baseball coach Jake Kline, 34 by former fencing coach Mike DeCicco, 31 by former men’s tennis coach Tom Fallon and 27 by former swimming coach Dennis Stark.
A number of high-profile former Irish athletes occupy assistant coach slots on the current staffs. That list includes Autry Denson, Todd Lyght and Tom Rees in football, Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers in men’s basketball and Beth (Morgan) Cunningham and Niele Ivey in women’s basketball.
Yet only one current Irish head coach possesses a Notre Dame degree—and also happens to qualify as a former Notre Dame student-athlete (and a great one, at that).
That’s men’s tennis coach Ryan Sachire, also Notre Dame’s youngest men’s head coach (he’ll be 39 in April).
“Most Notre Dame alums, if not all, would say coaching here would be their dream job and this was clearly mine,” says the Canfield, Ohio, product who now is in his fourth season as Irish head coach.
“There’s an appeal to any head coaching position at a Power Five conference school, but at the end of the day this is the place I loved. It’s in my blood. We feel like we belong here, so this was always the goal and the dream. Ultimately, this was the job I always wanted.”
And he knew long ago that coaching might well turn into his avocation.
“My parents were both high school teachers and my dad coached three sports—football, basketball and tennis--for a long time. The concepts of education and coaching--I’ve been exposed to those since I was born,” Sachire says.
“When I got to Notre Dame I fell in love with the place. And also college tennis--it wasn’t too long into my playing career that I knew that ultimately I wanted to be a college coach. You have junior tennis, college tennis and pro tennis and I had success at all three levels, but the place I flourished the most was the college level. The concept of being part of a team, being part of an institution—playing for something bigger than yourself and doing it with other people--it doesn’t get any better than that. Once I realized what this was all about--maybe somewhere in my freshman year--I knew I would want to stay involved in some capacity.”
Interestingly, though, Notre Dame wasn’t always Sachire’s dream destination.
“I grew up in northeast Ohio rooting for Ohio State in football and whoever played Notre Dame,” he says. “The appeal to me in the recruiting process was the balance of getting a great education and playing tennis at the highest level. And the size of the school and the location—Notre Dame checked all the boxes I was looking for.
“I visited Duke and Northwestern and William & Mary—that was the type of school I was looking for. I actually dreamed of going to Duke, and I had a very positive experience when I visited Northwestern--but when I visited here everything about this place really clicked with me. I got off the plane from my official visit and I loved everything about it—I think my parents were a little stunned. I thought this was the place for me.
“I had a little bit of a hard time getting my head around it because I was not a big (Notre Dame) fan. My dad coached at a public high school (Austintown Fitch) and there were several big Catholic schools that were big rivals (Cardinal Mooney, Youngstown Ursuline).
“But the place clicked with me and (then Irish head coach) Bobby (Bayliss) clicked with me. It was a signing day decision. As I fleshed out everything in my mind, when I went with my gut and my instincts, this was the right place. And obviously it worked out great.”
Sachire remains one of the top players in Irish tennis history. He is the only Notre Dame player to win 30-plus singles matches in all four of his collegiate seasons and one of only two to earn four invitations to the NCAA Singles Championship. One of three Notre Dame players to be a three-time All-American, he finished in the national top 40 in singles four times and on five occasions appeared at a career high of No. 2 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association national singles rankings. Sachire posted a 138-43 record in singles--placing him second on Notre Dame's all-time wins list--and a 73-32 mark in doubles.
An elite singles player throughout his career--he was 72-19 at No. 1 singles--Sachire was a regular in the collegiate grand slams. His best result was a trip to the title match of the 1998 ITA All-American Championships. He won the consolation title in the 1999 ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships and reached the semifinals of the 1999 ITA National Clay Court Championships. He also reached the semifinals of the ITA Midwest Championships three times, including a runner-up result in 1996. Sachire three times was invited to be on the elite United States Tennis Association Summer Collegiate Team that trains and plays in pro tournaments throughout the summer.
He helped the Irish compile a 67-33 (.670) mark during his collegiate days, as well as four consecutive finishes in the national top 35 (including 16th in 1997), four NCAA Championship bids and the 1999 BIG EAST Conference championship. Sachire was twice tabbed the conference tournament MVP and was the ITA Midwest Region Player of the Year in 1998 and 2000 after being the region's top rookie in 1997. He was voted the team's MVP four times and capped his career in 2000 by winning the ITA National Senior Player of the Year award.
After five seasons on the professional circuit, Sachire began his coaching career as an assistant for one season at Baylor—and he considers that single year in Waco (the Bears advanced to the NCAA team semifinals that year) one of his great learning experiences.
“That could be my most important year in coaching. I learned a ton of things that were different than I did as a player or as Bobby’s assistant because it was a different role. It was an entire new school, an entire new conference, a whole new culture in terms of doing things.
“It was great because it gave me a fresh perspective and a different look as to how a high-level high-functioning tennis program can be run. Plus, I’d never been a coach before. They gave me my start. It was the concept of what I learned, being able to balance those lessons against how I saw things done here, and that led to forming my own identity separate from exactly what Bobby had done.”
In 2006 Irish assistant coach Todd Doebler left to become the head coach at Penn State and Bayliss invited Sachire to return to South Bend. Seven years on Bayliss’ staff (2006-07 through 2012-13) produced three BIG EAST titles and seven straight NCAA appearances.
On July 1, 2013, Sachire became the seventh head coach in the 91-year history of men’s tennis at Notre Dame when Bayliss retired after 26 seasons in South Bend. Sachire’s tenure matches with Notre Dame’s start with the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He believes he brings a unique perspective—and maybe advantage--to the job, given his Notre Dame background.
“The primary one is in talking to our current players because I’ve been in their shoes and I know what it’s like,” says Sachire, now the Callaghan Family Head Men’s Tennis Coach. “Obviously the world changes and their experience is different than mine. But at the same time, it’s about being a tennis player at Notre Dame.
“It’s all about being able to recruit to that, an experience you know so well and thrived in and loved. It makes the message I can sell in recruiting very authentic. It helps with credibility with our players because they know I walked in their shoes.
“I don’t think it’s as much on the court—a tennis coach is a tennis coach. I think it’s more knowing the life they are leading away from this building (the Eck Tennis Pavilion, Notre Dame’s indoor tennis home) and dealing with the academic nature of Notre Dame, knowing what it’s like to live on campus. It’s all the things I embrace every day, which is that this is being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s being part of the Notre Dame family and the Notre Dame community—I hope our guys embrace that on a daily basis, not just when they are playing a match.
“I hope there is legitimacy to what I say to parents because they know I lived that experience—things like academic support, school spirit, the community nature of this place. It’s a family that you feel—and it’s all those extras that go along with playing tennis. Not only can I talk about them from a coach’s perspective, but I can relate to the experience their kids are going to have when they come here.”
What does Sachire know about Notre Dame now that maybe he didn’t understand as an undergraduate?
“I have a fuller appreciation now of what the Notre Dame family or the Notre Dame network really means,” he says. “Back then you looked at it from a mobility standpoint—how can it help me advance in the business world? What you appreciate over time is that it’s way more than that—it’s the genuine feeling people have for those that are part of the Notre Dame family. It means more as you age and it’s the sense of community that’s here that you feel when you travel on the road or you see when you are out recruiting and wearing Notre Dame gear.
“There’s a bond, there’s an absolute bond among alums of this place. You see how tough times are navigated and what the place stands for. There’s a growing sense of pride knowing that Notre Dame is more than just talking about its values--that those values are not going to be compromised. So there’s a tremendous appreciation for that. There’s a quest to be excellent, there’s a quest to be the best in all that we do and yet we’re going to do it the right way and we really believe in that. We’re not going to compromise--and you appreciate that more.”
Sachire’s first three seasons as head coach have extended Notre Dame’s string of NCAA invitations to 10 in a row. He tutored 2016 Irish doubles All-Americans Quentin Monaghan and Alex Lawson—with Monaghan also claiming All-America honors in 2015 when he advanced to the NCAA individual singles semifinals. Sachire’s first Irish team in 2014 finished with a final No. 13 ITA ranking and an NCAA Round of 16 finish.
Sachire won’t guarantee he’ll last as long as Kline, DeCicco, Fallon or Stark—but, then again, maybe he will.
“I hope I’m here a long time—God willing and athletic director willing,” he says with a smile. “There’s a commitment to this place from our entire family. My wife (Cindy) works here on campus, she’s a graduate—and our daughters (Anna and Emily) love Notre Dame so you feel really comfortable and happy here. It would take an unbelievable opportunity somewhere else to consider leaving this place. It’s where we met and spent our formative years. We’re thrilled and honored to be part of things here.”
Sachire every so often thinks back to the day he signed his national letter of intent to come to Notre Dame.
“The day that I actually signed—it was all about, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m going to be a part of.’ There was a real passion for Notre Dame once I made that commitment and was on board.
“When I came here it was trying to be the best I could be. What motivated me was being a part of something bigger than myself and contributing to that cause.
“This place elicits that feeling and that emotion.”
Sachire still has his Notre Dame monogram jacket in his closet at home.
For now, he’s the only Irish head coach who has won one of those.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com