A Veteran's Journey: Coach Ray Bechard
His phone rang around 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. The call was a possibility but certainly not a guarantee. In fact, Ray and Pam Bechard hadn’t even told their kids about the potential that awaited if he answered. Amy Perko, Kansas Athletics Senior Woman’s Administrator in 1998, was on the other end of the line. Bechard picked up, and his life would never be the same.
“She said ‘We’d love to have you as our coach,'” Bechard recalled. “I told her ‘I’d love to be the coach.'”
Per the usual job offers, Perko invited him to think about it overnight and get back with them the following morning.
“Nope, no need to do that,” Bechard smiled, and the 2012 Big 12 Volleyball and AVCA Central Coach of the Year started a story that intertwines marriage, parenting, moving and coaching a sport he never saw coming.
Rarely can people pinpoint the moment they were introduced to destiny. Now in his 28th year as a head coach, his 16th at Kansas with 255 Jayhawk wins to his name and nearly 1,000 for his career, Bechard still remembers.
A sophomore at Barton County Community College, the Grinnell, Kan., native had been a basketball enthusiast his whole life. During a normal practice day, his eyes opened.
“Lorin Miller was my coach and I was watching a drill he was running. It crystallized then and there – I knew I wanted to coach,” Bechard said. “It had a lot to do with how he conducted practice and the type of coach that he was got me excited about it. So at that time, I was a journalism major, because my older brother was a sportswriter, and then it shifted. It became pretty clear to me that I wanted to coach.”
Shortly after graduating from Fort Hays State in the spring of 1980, the current veteran Big 12 coach, who ranks fourth in the league in overall wins, began at step one. He signed on to coach basketball, instruct driver’s ed and teach physical education classes at Lewis High School in Lewis, Kan.
“Back in the day, there was a certain transition level, where you had to work your way up,” Bechard laughed. “I was oblivious to Division I at that time. It wasn’t even a consideration. I thought if I could ever get back to a juco level that I would be really happy because I had a great experience at Barton.”
While not a glamorous start to some, Bechard loved it. The original job he agreed to was an assistant football and head men’s basketball position. Lewis was similar in size and culture to his hometown of Grinnell and he was happy there. A year into the job, he made the decision he prides above all decisions, when he and the former Pamela Brown exchanged wedding vows.
His wedding was the only the first major change on tap during his debut season. It was early summer when the school’s superintendent added another duty to Bechard’s job description – volleyball.
“I hesitated at first, but he was the boss so ‘here we go,'” Bechard said. “You’re young and dumb and just think you’re going to go out there and try to do a good job.”
With that, he called his family, which one quickly learns is part of the process with the Bechards. His playing and coaching experience revolved primarily around basketball and football. The most he could pull from was the knowledge that western Kansas volleyball was excellent at the time and his younger sister had played on a state championship team for Grinnell High School.
As they did as kids and into adulthood, the Bechard boys leaned on each other for advice. Older brothers Rich and Don preceded Ray in the coaching profession, but only Don had experience in the volleyball realm. They called each other to bounce ideas around and even attended the Kansas High School Athletics Association’s Coaching School together each summer, the same coaching school that Bechard now presents at.
“We did volleyball directly into basketball for three years,” Bechard said. “At the time, I still thought volleyball was something I needed to do before basketball season got there.”
After three years at LHS, Bechard and his wife were given the opportunity he had originally set his sights on at Barton County. Life, as it tends to do, had changed. When his junior college alma mater came calling in need of an assistant women’s basketball coach, Bechard wasn’t so sure that was for him.
“Pam probably sacrificed the most,” Bechard explained about the move to Barton. “She had a second grade teaching job and we would drive over to work together. To be able to make a move, she had to give up something she really loved for a year before she got an opportunity to teach in Great Bend. Then Ashley and Brennan came along. Doing all of that with two young kids, obviously, you’ve got to work together. She’s allowed me to grow and build professionally by making sacrifices and really helping me take care of the home base.”
At the time, making the move from high school to college coaching ranks was a grueling transition. What’s more, that sport he “worked with until basketball came around” took on a full-time role as he moved from assistant women’s basketball coach to the head volleyball coaching spot.
What resulted, however, was nothing short of amazing.
In 13 seasons at Barton County, Bechard posted a career record of 716-60 (.923 winning percentage) and coached 23 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Academic All-Americans. Twice (1990, 1993) Bechard was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Junior College Coach of the Year, and he was selected the AVCA District IV Coach of the Year 12 times. Bechard was inducted into the NJCAA Volleyball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Even now, Bechard can’t put a finger on the exact origin of his love for the University of Kansas. He also can’t remember a time where he, his brothers and his dad weren’t doing whatever it took to get the Jayhawk game on the radio or the family TV. Once he had kids of his own, Bechard would take Brennan to the Big Eight Basketball Tournament every year they could.
“The first thing I remember is Jo Jo White stepping out of bounds and watching that with our dad on a small little TV with all of us boys,” Bechard said. “I also remember pretty clearly the 1969 Orange Bowl. I remember the disappointment we all felt when we lost that game and from there, it grew into a passion for all of us.”
So when their beloved school set its sights on Bechard, he once again leaned on his brothers for help. They worried about the adjustment. They knew he was being asked to take over a program that had struggled for a while and leave one that was at the top – but excitement won out.
On Aug. 30, his 16th first day of the season rolled around and the next day, his 250th win at Kansas was recorded with a road win at Arizona. The program his family worried about is officially rebuilt. Under Bechard, Kansas has gone to four NCAA Tournaments and finished over .500 in 11 of 15 seasons.
While none of his roads have been easy, Bechard is quick to thank all those who have traveled with him. Each move was difficult, but his family grew with each one. Ashley would go on to play four years at setter for her dad at Kansas, while Brennan earned a job as the men’s basketball director of operations after his career playing for the Jayhawks.
Bechard knows he made the right choice when he took the call that Wednesday night. Fifteen years later, his 2012 Jayhawks posted the all-time best winning percentage, were ranked for 11-straight weeks and finished third in the Big 12 Conference. When the Jayhawk faithful filled his beloved Allen Fieldhouse for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last November, Bechard found his family in the crowd as he always does, smiled and prepared for first serve.
“If I wouldn’t have had the support of Pam; my kids, who were willing to let their dad coach and the rest of my family, then this profession just wouldn’t work,” Bechard. “It starts with the No. 1 person in my life for the last 33 years. Pam’s support trickles down to our kids and our family. If you come to a KU home volleyball match, you’re going to see the Bechard group pretty well represented.”
Thanks for taking the call, Coach.