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COMMENTARY

Ex-UB wrestling coach Beichner finds a niche in NASCAR

Admittedly, the first few weeks after his dismissal were a little strange. Jim Beichner had spent his childhood working in the family farming and garbage businesses in Sinclairville before wrestling became his passion and took over his life. And suddenly it was gone.

The wrestling community should remember Beichner, a star in high school and college who became a coach and took over the program at the University at Buffalo. He stayed 18 years before Danny White showed up one day, evaluated an injury-riddled season and gave him the heave-ho.

Beichner was 49, a divorced father of three and a tireless employee when he was shown the door. Eighteen months later, after his life was turned upside down, he holds no animosity toward the university or the young athletic director who fired him. In fact, they did him a favor.

Really.

Beichner didn’t realize as much in March 2012, when his contract wasn’t renewed after a 1-11 season. He was a good coach who was guilty of terrible timing. His worst season came months after White took over the athletic department. He became the second casualty under the first-year AD, just behind Reggie Witherspoon.

“I had known really nothing but wrestling for my entire life,” Beichner said by telephone Tuesday. “Going from that to not knowing what the next gig was, yeah, that was tough. It was mentally tough, but it was the reality. I wasn’t totally shocked when it happened.”

Beichner found peace with his 151-120-4 record. He took pride knowing he took over a program that had six wins in four years and two years later finished 12-2. He was named top coach in the Mid-American Conference in 2011. A year later, he was out the door and out of coaching.

He took a deep breath and assessed his future over the next few months. He had been so busy with wrestling for so long that he had forgotten how to relax for more than a few days. He came to understand that he desperately needed a vacation from his vocation.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Beichner wasn’t good enough for White, but he was ideal for Roger Penske and his world-class racing teams. Never mind that Beichner knew very little about auto racing or that Penske knew less about the UB wrestling program. Their paths intersected while both were thinking outside the box.

Penske was looking for a leader who would get his teams in better shape physically and mentally with the idea it would improve performance on the NASCAR and IndyCar circuits. Specifically, he wanted someone who had administrative and coaching experience but had no connections to the racing industry.

Beichner discovered Team Penske advertising online for the position and thought he might have a chance. In addition to coaching, Beichner had worked in the housing and compliance branches within the athletic department at UB. His only real connection to racing was his driver’s license.

It was a match made at a rest stop.

Beichner was driving south on Route 79 toward Pittsburgh and pulled into a rest area when Penske officials called him for an informal interview. Moments later, in an eerie coincidence, a Penske rental truck pulled up behind him. A few months later, Roger Penske sat across a table and offered him a job with a fitting title: athletic director.

“I like it here, and I’m doing well here,” Beichner said. “For as long as it lasts, I’ll be appreciative of them. I don’t know how many people will be given the experience I’ve been given. For Roger Penske to look at you, point his finger and say, ‘Let’s get this guy a contract Monday,’ it’s a pretty big boost of confidence.”

Let’s be honest, the former UB wrestling coach isn’t going to help Joey Logano make left turns or develop Juan Pablo Montoya’s right calf muscle. Beichner’s basic duties call for improving the overall condition of Penske pit crews so they can execute better during the 38-week season.

In a sport in which a half-second seems an eternity, race teams are looking for every imaginable advantage. Beichner realized that his crew members aren’t much different from the wrestlers he coached over the years.

“We have an equipment room, we have a weight room, we have athletes and coaches,” Beichner said. “It’s really not a whole lot different than if you shrunk a school like UB down to an 80-person athletic department.”

Beichner is living about 40 miles from Charlotte, N.C., and making more money than ever while running his own department. He also has a greater appreciation for the life he left behind.

And he’s thanking UB in more ways than he ever imagined.

Last year, his 22-year-old son, Jake, suffered a serious head injury and was temporarily paralyzed from injuries suffered in a diving accident at Sherkston Beach. His other son, Sam, pulled him out after he was face down and unconscious in the water. Both were lifeguards who were trained at UB.

How could he harbor bitterness toward the university when it helped save his son’s life and, in many ways, his own? Beichner doesn’t have the time or energy to check the rearview mirror.

“Every person has an end date whether it’s your life or your job or your kids leaving your house,” Beichner said. “I have no ill feelings for anyone at UB. I appreciate the fact that I had 18 years of experience. Those are life experiences you can’t change. And it got me to here.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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