Former Loyola men’s basketball player Clayton Custer has seen it all. He’s lifted up the NCAA South Regional Championship trophy over his head. He played on basketball courts in Poland on a professional stint with WKS Śląsk Wrocław. He’s even seen the inside of an office at Northwestern Mutual.
Now, he’s sitting alongside head coach Porter Moser on the bench as the Director of Player Development for the 2020-21 season.
After being dropped from his professional team WKS Śląsk Wrocław, Custer tried his hand at coaching for a few of Loyola’s games last season, but ultimately decided he needed to try something other than basketball. So, he headed into the business world and took a job in finance at Northwestern Mutual.
He said it was the first time he had ever been out of athletics, having played sports for most of his life. He viewed it as a challenge.
But it wasn’t long before Custer realized how much he missed the sport.
“I’m glad I tried it out and took my shot in the business world but the game just kept calling me back,” Custer, 25, said. “I think basketball is such a big part of who I am and who I’ve been for my whole life. … I just couldn’t stay away from it any longer.”
Moser offered him a job alongside the Rambler coaching staff and he started in late October.
Custer was a staple during his time in a Maroon and Gold uniform. He won the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year in 2018 and helped guide the team to a Final Four run.
During his senior season, Custer led the Ramblers to a second consecutive MVC regular season title. Moser said because Custer was so young and fresh off his own college career, it has made him a great advocate for the players — especially considered he was a voice for the team in his own college days.
“He’s got that aura about him that he can draw people in,” Moser said. “People listen to him, his peers listen to him. I rely on him a lot. … I love getting his take because he’s freshly removed from that and he went through playing for us. He’s where the guys want to be.”
Custer said his favorite part of coaching is being someone the players can talk to. He said he does a lot with scouting and film, but the part he enjoys the most is getting to connect with the players.
Transitioning to college basketball can be a challenge for a lot of first-years, so Custer said he looks to be a mentor figure for young men starting out their careers. He said he just wants to have some sort of an impact — on or off the court.
Senior guard Lucas Willamson spent a lot of time with Custer during their playing days as well as now. The two work closely as Custer played the same position Williamson does. Williamson said he can see the emphasis Custer puts into connecting with the younger players.
“When I came in, Clay was one of the guys I looked up to and one of the guys that was mentoring me,” Williamson said. “His transition to coaching hasn’t been something drastically different for him.”
Custer, an Overland Park, Kansas native, played alongside some of the players still on the team. Williamson and senior center Cameron Krutwig were first-years when Custer was a redshirt junior. The three players shared the court for two years.
While Custer has said his transition from player to coach has been a “little bit weird” due to his friendships with older players, Moser said the new coach’s relationship with younger players has been a highlight of Custer’s return.
“I think he leaves it up to me to make them run sprints,” Moser said. “He is just all about helping wherever possible, and the guys ask him a lot of questions. I always love watching when the younger guys go and ask him questions.”
His impact on some of the team’s younger generation can already be seen. During the Feb. 27 game against Southern Illinois University, Custer was on the court during warmups offering pointers to many players including first-year Baylor Hebb and junior Paxson Wojcik.
As Custer played point guard, he also works closely with redshirt sophomore guard Braden Norris and sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy.
“I really feel like he’s a great resource for some of these young guards coming in,” Krutwig said. “He’ll definitely help the development of those young guys … We’ve got some freshman coming in that are mostly guards so he’ll definitely help them out.”
As for Moser, he said he knows he can rely on Custer, giving him some of the more challenging responsibilities such as sideline out of bounds plays and baseline out of bounds plays. Moser also likes to get Custer’s take on some more specific plays.
“I think he’s been a great addition to our staff,” Moser said. “He gives us a different dynamic from the position he was in as our former point guard.”
Overall, Custer said he just feels grateful for the experience. During his brief stint last season, he was offered the chance to become a full-time coach but turned it down. It wasn’t until a couple months later that he realized he wanted to pursue coaching and came back to Loyola.
“I feel lucky,” Custer said. “Those guys let me coach them and they respect me when I talk to them about certain things on the floor. … They’re letting me coach them and I’m thankful for that.”