Kansas University athletic director Sheahon Zenger was seated to my left, volleyball coach Ray Bechard to my right Sunday afternoon in the Naismith Room of Allen Fieldhouse.
Bechard’s seat was cool and comfortable. Zenger had nothing but praise for the 15th-year KU volleyball coach.
If this season had been as bad for Bechard and KU volleyball as it was good, I would not have been invited to the table, and the conversation very well could have been about how to change Bechard’s role. Maybe a position in the Williams Fund, the athletic department’s fundraising arm?
We’ll never know if Bechard saved his job with this remarkable season that continues when Kansas meets Cleveland State in Allen Fieldhouse in Friday’s opening round. We only know that his job security won’t be an issue for a long time coming.
Bechard always has represented the university well and been very well-liked within the department. His team consistently has drawn capacity-or-close-to-it crowds at cozy Horejsi Center. His players perform well in the classroom.
But with the last NCAA Tourney appearance coming in 2005 and his contract ready to expire, Bechard was in need of a big season. If he lived on the ropes a year ago, he now stands over a body that has a broken nose set beneath eyes seeing nothing but stars.
Kansas earned the No. 11 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of a 12-4 Big 12 record and a top-10 RPI. This from a squad that went 3-13 in conference matches last season.
The improvement made by nine sophomores who became juniors played as big a factor as anything in the stunning reversal. Bechard and assistants Laura Kuhn and Todd Chamberlain deserve credit for creating the right environment and giving proper instruction to cultivate the improvement.
Zenger had a hand in this, too, by turning up the heat on all of the programs in the department with losing Big 12 records.
Early in his tenure, Zenger held a mandatory meeting and let everybody know what a joke he thought it was that “excellence” was in the motto of an athletic department that in all-sports standings ranked last in the Big 12.
“I can feel the culture of our athletic department changing, and I’m not saying that just because Sheahon’s sitting there,” Bechard said of the AD who addressed his team before the season.
“Shifting into one that’s a little more demanding of what our athletes are doing and how they’re spending their time, and obviously that vision that he has is filtering down,” Bechard said.
Nice of Bechard to share the credit. Leo Durocher was wrong. Nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes they finish strong and as a result aren’t anywhere close to being finished.