STILLWATER, Okla. — Kurt Budke turned Oklahoma State’s women’s basketball team into a winner and hoped he’d found the place where he’d coach until he retired. Miranda Serna had passed up opportunities to leave his side, staying loyal to the man whom she had helped to win a junior college national championship and then rebuild a big-time college program.
Having succeeded together, Budke and Serna died together — perishing in a plane crash on a trip aimed at building their team’s future.
Budke, the head coach, and Serna, his assistant, were killed Thursday when the single-engine plane transporting them on a recruiting trip crashed in steep terrain in Arkansas, the university said Friday. The pilot, 82-year-old former Oklahoma state Sen. Olin Branstetter, and his 79-year-old wife, Paula, also died when the plane sputtered, spiralled out of control and nosedived into the Winona Wildlife Management Area near Perryville, about 72 kilometres west of Little Rock.
There were no survivors.
“This is our worst nightmare. The entire OSU family is very close, very close indeed,” OSU President Burns Hargis said at a news conference. “To lose anyone, especially these two individuals who are incredible life forces in our family, it is worse beyond words.”
The crash was the second major tragedy for the sports program in about a decade. In January 2001, 10 men affiliated with the university’s men’s basketball team died in a Colorado plane crash.
“When something like this happens and, God forbid it happened again, we have to pull together as a family. We’ve got to try to do that,” Hargis said, as he broke down in tears.
After the 2001 crash, the university required that planes used by the school’s sports team undergo safety checks before travel. Hargis said coaches were not bound by the same rules and that the school left such decisions to their discretion.
Hargis called Budke “an exemplary leader and man of character,” and credited him with elevating the team in a tough program. Serna, he said, was “an up-and-coming coach and an outstanding role model” for the players. Former assistant coach Jim Littell will serve as interim head coach. The team’s games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday were cancelled.
The football team went ahead with its game at Iowa State on Friday night, with Iowa State observing a moment of silence beforehand to honour Budke and Serna. Oklahoma State spokesman Gavin Lang said the Cowboys didn’t display a remembrance of the victims on their uniforms because they didn’t have enough time to do so.
The school’s women’s soccer team, which has lost only once all season, went forward with its NCAA tournament game Friday. The tragedy was addressed in a team meeting beforehand, and several players stopped by to sign a banner set up in the Gallagher-Iba Arena lobby in remembrance.
“It’s pretty hard just because it’s happened once before. OSU came together then and we can come together now,” defender Carson Michalowski said.
Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery said hunters called emergency officials about 4 p.m. Thursday after they heard the plane apparently in trouble, then saw it nosedive into a heavily wooded area.
“The plane was spitting and sputtering and then it spiralled and went nose first into the ground,” Montgomery said.
“It went straight into the side of the hill,” he said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jason Aguilera said it would issue a preliminary report in five days, but it could be more than a year before the agency’s investigation is complete.
The weather at the time was clear. The plane didn’t have flight data or voice recorders, Aguilera said, but it’s possible a GPS unit might be recovered and used to reconstruct the flight’s path.
FAA records showed the plane was built in 1964 and registered to Branstetter. Oklahoma State spokesman Gary Shutt said the coaches were going to watch recruits playing in two games in Little Rock.
For some, the news brought back emotions felt a decade ago.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about one of those guys,” said Eddie Sutton, the OSU men’s basketball coach at the time of the 2001 crash. “It’s emotional, believe me. This brings back a lot of unpleasantness.”
The Jan. 27, 2001, crash occurred about 35 minutes after the plane took off in light snow. The Beechcraft King Air 200 carrying players and others connected to the OSU men’s basketball team crashed in a field 60 kilometres east of Denver as the Cowboys returned from a game at Colorado.
An NTSB report cited a power loss aboard the plane and said the pilot suffered disorientation while flying the plane manually with still-available instruments.
“Our players right now are totally devastated,” Littell said. “They loved coach Budke, they loved coach Serna. A lot of the reason that a lot of these kids are here are because of those two people. Coach Serna was a tireless worker and got those kids believing in her. So, obviously they’re hurting because we’ve lost two tremendous people to the OSU family.”
The university hired Budke from Louisiana Tech seven years ago and the Salina, Kan., native compiled a 112-83 record with three trips to the NCAA tournament. This year’s team was 1-0 after defeating Rice on Sunday.
Budke coached Serna and Trinity Valley to a junior college national title in 1996. Serna went on to play for Houston before returning to the community college to become an assistant coach under Budke. He also had Serna on his staff at Louisiana Tech and Oklahoma State. She was the recruiting co-ordinator for the Cowgirls.
Budke agreed to a five-year contract extension through June 2017 last year and said at the time: “This is where I want to be the rest of my life. This is where I want to finish my career.”
“His zeal for Oklahoma State was uncomparable. He loved this place. He loved this place, he loved coming in here every day,” Littell said.
“This was his dream situation,” he added.
Serna, 36, bought into it, too. Top coaches around the country considered her one of the better young recruiters, but she stuck with Budke as the Cowgirls rose from a losing program into one that made the post-season five years in a row.
“She worked hard. She believed in him. That’s why she stayed. … She had some opportunities to look at some other jobs, but she wanted to bring in players and help him win at Oklahoma State,” said Carlene Mitchell, another of Budke’s former players from Trinity Valley who’s now the coach at UC Santa Barbara.
The head coach of top-ranked Baylor, Kim Mulkey, said the deaths would have a wide impact.
“There’s a bigger picture out there and it’s not a basketball game, it puts life in perspective.” Mulkey said. “I feel for the Oklahoma State community. How many more tragedies can they endure?”
After Hargis’ news conference, tearful Oklahoma State staff members and supporters comforted each other in the hallway of Heritage Hall. Later, the university announced that a public memorial service for the coaches will be held Monday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Throughout the day Thursday, supporters came through the basketball arena’s lobby to write messages of remembrance and notes of encouragement to the team on banners laid out near pictures of the four who were killed.
Former Cowgirl Taylor Hardeman wrote: “I will never forget how much better you made me as a person, player and alum. Thanks for the memories. God bless you both. You will be missed.”