Rock Chalk Weekly: The Bechard Bond
Written by Krysti Cole, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
It was January 1, 1969 and the Bechard family, all nine of them, crammed into their small living room in Western Kansas and huddled around the television, hopeful to welcome the New Year with a Jayhawk victory at the Orange Bowl.
Overcome with nerves and anticipation, Ray Bechard, who was just a kid at the time, vividly remembers the final moments of the game. Only seconds remained on the clock and Kansas led Penn State, 14-13. KU stopped the Nittany Lions on what was thought to be the last drive of the game. While they were waiting for the clock to strike zero before celebrating, the referee unleashed his dreadful yellow flag after finding too many Jayhawks on the field. Penn State got a second chance and would go on to complete the two-point conversion to win the game.
The Bechards, and every other Jayhawk fan in the country, were stunned. It was in that moment, as his family was squished in the living room consoling one another in the heartbreaking loss, that two things would be instilled in the young Bechard: family is irreplaceable and he bled Crimson and Blue.
“The ’69 Orange Bowl cemented my ties to the Jayhawks,” Bechard reflected. “I can just remember sitting with my family and the disappointment in my older brothers and in myself – that’s when I realized that, if I get that disappointed in just a football game, I must be developing some form of allegiance with KU.”
Whether they were gathered around the television to watch their beloved Jayhawks or were playing catch in the backyard, it was evident that the Bechard family was unified by athletics early on. Born and raised in the quaint town of Grinnell, Kansas, Bechard and his six siblings found that playing sports was the best way to pass time.
“Growing up I played everything,” Bechard said. “When you have three older brothers and five boys in a small town, playing sports are about your only opportunity because there’s not much else going on.”
Even if there was, one gets the sense that it would not have mattered. The games that bonded Bechard, his brothers and only sister have since taken hold in his own family. The Kansas volleyball head coach and his wife, Pam, have seen the same unifying quality with their children. The memories of his dad playing catch or coaching third base on his baseball teams are moments that Bechard tries to mimic now that he is a father himself.
After taking a coaching job at Lewis High School, in Lewis, Kansas, right out of college, Bechard got his big break at Barton County Community College. With two kids, Ashley and Brennan, and his coaching career taking off the hardwood courts began to serve as a home away from home for the Bechard family.
The schedule of a coach isn’t generous, nor is it forgiving. However, Bechard was raised to acknowledge that family should never take a backseat to work and made sure to find ways to spend time with his kids.
“As soon as the kids were old enough to ride along and go to practice or games with me, they would go,” Bechard said.
Everyone benefited from it; dad got to spend time with his kids, the kids got to hang out with cool college students and the team gained a pair of persuasive helpers.
“When we would go on trips the kids would be sitting in the back of the bus with the team,” Bechard said. “Whenever the team wanted something they would send Brennan or Ashley up to the front and say; ‘Hey Coach B you think we could…'”
“Whatever the team wanted, I would get sent up to ask my dad,” Brennan recalled with a chuckle.
With his office connected to the gym, Bechard’s space served as the perfect after-school destination. There was something about an empty gym that gave comfort to the Bechard family, especially to Brennan.
“Since I can remember I have always loved being around the gym,” Brennan said. “I would go to work with my dad a lot after school or in the summers and just shoot around.”
On days that the coach couldn’t manage to have his kids come to the gym he carried on the family tradition of playing catch or shooting hoops in the backyard. Those moments brought the devout father back to his roots and reminded him that family is the greatest gift.
Making sure to keep his family close to him, volleyball tournaments often turned into Bechard family vacations. At the helm of Barton County’s volleyball program for 13 years, Bechard led the Cougars to multiple appearances at nationals in Miami, Florida.
The palm trees and sandy beaches were a pleasant change of scenery for the family that hails from the plains of Western Kansas.
“We would go with my dad and the team to Miami almost every year for nationals,” Brennan said. “I can remember that gym inside and out, I was there so much. Those were probably the most fun trips. It was a great way to spend time with our family.”
The hours spent in a gym would go on to pay off in a multitude of ways for the Bechard family. It all began nearly 20 years ago with a late night phone call from the University of Kansas athletic department.
From Jo Jo White’s out-of-bounds foot in ’66, to the Orange Bowl in ’69 and all the Jayhawk memories that followed, Bechard accepted his unshakable attachment to Kansas. On the evening in 1998, he would become a part of the place he loves. Bechard eagerly said yes to his dreams and accepted a coaching job for Kansas’ volleyball program. But before he could start drawing up plays, he had had some important phone calls to make.
“I got the job at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night and I called every one of them (Bechard’s family) that night,” Bechard said.
The excitement of a new adventure also came with the reality of having to leave Western Kansas, the only place the Bechards had ever called home. The announcement came with mixed emotions from his family.
“I remember the night when dad told us,” Brennan said. “I was jumping up and down on the counter and my sister was crying.”
Getting ready to start her sophomore year of high school, it took Ashley a little bit longer to adapt to life in Lawrence. However, with an athletic bloodline the once apprehensive teen found herself as the starting setter for Lawrence High and everything began to fall in place.
After three years of playing varsity ball Ashley received the invitation to continue her volleyball career by playing for her dad at the University of Kansas. Bechard couldn’t imagine a better way to spend more quality time with his daughter.
“We tried to go through every possible scenario that might happen between a father coaching his daughter,” Bechard said. “There were a couple that came up that were outside of the box, but I think it was probably harder on her than it was me because I just enjoyed having her around.”
Balancing when to be a father and when to be a coach wasn’t so hard for Bechard when he got to share Kansas volleyball’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth during Ashley’s junior campaign in 2003. The accomplishment was a great feat for the coach, but being able to share the moment with his daughter was an even better feeling.
While Ashley and her father made history on one hardwood court, it would only be a few years later that Brennan would follow in their footsteps and also become a part of Kansas history on another.
Those endless hours Brennan spent in the gym at Barton County Community College came full circle when he headed back to Great Bend and suited up for the Cougars. A year after grooming the skills on the same hardwood floor that he discovered his love for the game, Bill Self, head coach of the storied men’s basketball program at the University of Kansas, was asking Brennan to join the Jayhawks as a walk-on.
“When he ran out for Late Night I was just looking at my wife like what is going on here,” Bechard said. “Then in his first game he takes a three-pointer and makes it, our whole family was just going nuts.”
A year after watching their son put on the Kansas uniform for the first time, the Bechard clan was once again in the stands to witness another historic moment as Kansas won the 2008 National Championships in San Antonio, Texas.
“I think one of the coolest moments was in ’08 after we won it all,” Brennan said. “There was a big reception in the hotel afterward and just having everyone there was a cool moment for us.”
Although Ashley and Brennan’s playing careers have concluded, they are still close to their dad. Brennan, literally, as he works one hallway over as the men’s basketball Director of Operations. Ashley and her husband, Erik, live in Boston but frequent trips to visit his granddaughter, Evie, keeps them close as well.
It’s not uncommon to still find a pack of Bechards in the stands at Horejsi Family Athletics Center or in Allen Fieldhouse cheering on Jayhawk volleyball and its head coach.
“They were there when we made it to the Sweet 16 a couple years ago,” Bechard said. “One of the first things I did was head up to the stands to have a moment with those guys when the match was over. They have been unconditional in their support.”
When they aren’t at a game, it’s not unusual to find the Bechards gathered together in other ways and places. Up until three years ago the Bechard siblings, with families in tow, would find their way back to their stomping grounds in Grinnell, Kansas for the holidays. On Christmas, over 30 family members would squeeze into that living room and gather around the television surrounded by the game each grew up with.
“We would always watch the NBA games on Christmas Day together,” Brennan said. “Then if it was nice enough we would go outside and play football or basketball somewhere. That time with all of our family was great.”
It doesn’t matter where the family finds themselves congregating; they always seem to find a hardwood court of one form or another to reconnect with each other. As fate would have it, Bechard is looking to keep the tradition going as he is on the brink of another monumental year.
Now entering his 18th season with the Jayhawks, Bechard will look to leave yet another mark at Kansas. The decorated head coach is only five wins away from earning his 300th victory at KU and will be the first volleyball coach in program history to reach the landmark.
When that day comes, it will be no surprise to find a section of the stands occupied by Bechards eagerly waiting to embrace their brother, husband, father, uncle, or most recently, grandpa. Whoever may be there that special day, they won’t just be celebrating the coach’s achievement, but also another Jayhawk victory.
“They love KU, but they love me a little bit more,” Bechard said with a smile. “It’s cool because you can cheer for your brother or whomever, but when you are already invested in the school it makes it a double win.”
After all, Bechards bleed Crimson and Blue.
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