STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Kurt Budke’s success coaching Oklahoma State University’s women’s basketball team was a testament to his work ethic and tireless preparation, but the women who played for him said it was the sense of family he fostered that they’ll remember most.
Thousands of orange and black-clad mourners gathered Monday in Gallagher-Iba Arena to pay tribute to Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna and two other people who were killed Thursday when their small plane crashed in Arkansas during a recruiting visit.
The bright orange blazer Budke wore for the Cowgirls’ biggest games sat draped over his customary seat on the bench, as former players and school administrators spoke of the four who died, including pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula, and tried to make sense of the tragic crash — the second in ten years involving members of OSU’s basketball program.
"We have always been reminded that we are family and that the girls you play with are your sisters," said former OSU point guard Taylor Hardeman, who played for Budke from 2005 to 2009. "He was a father figure to us all while we were away from home."
If the coach was a father figure, his longtime assistant Serna was like a sibling, Hardeman said.
"I’ve never seen a woman with so much energy when it came to coaching. Her passion for basketball was contagious. Most of all, she was a big sister. She listened. She counseled. She cared for others much more than she cared for herself," she said.
Budke’s other family — his wife Shelley and their three children — and the families of the other three crash victims attended the service, as did several rival Big 12 coaches, including Baylor’s Kimi Mulkey, Texas A&M’s Gary Blair and the University of Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale.
Authorities are trying to determine what caused the crash, which happened late Thursday about 45 miles west of Little Rock, where the coaches planned to scout two prospective recruits.
Budke amassed a sparkling 456-130 overall record as a coach, leading four junior college teams to national titles, including one with Serna as his point guard. He led the Louisiana Tech women’s team to three straight NCAA tournament appearances — the last after Serna joined his staff — before they left for OSU in 2005 and quickly turned around the flagging program. After going winless against Big 12 opponents in Budke’s first season, the Cowgirls reached the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 in his third.
The team is expected to resume play Saturday against Coppin State under interim head coach Jim Littell.
On campus, news of the crash brought back memories of the January 2001 plane crash in Colorado in which two members of OSU’s men’s team and eight people associated with the program were killed.
"It doesn’t seem fair that a university should have to go through this twice," said Larry Reece, OSU’s basketball announcer.
In the lobby of the arena, notes, candles and bouquets of black and orange flowers were scattered at the base of a memorial erected to honor those killed in 2001 — a statue of a kneeling cowboy, hat in hand, surrounded by photographs of those killed in the crash.
"We just did our 10th anniversary memorial. It’s just unreal that it could happen to us twice," said Derek Hartridge, 20, a sophomore from Kiowa, Okla. "I look around the arena today, and definitely feel like these are my brothers and sisters."
Changes were made to the university’s travel policy after the 2001 tragedy. There was a new rule requiring two pilots to be on board for all OSU travel involving student athletes and a requirement that team aircraft be powered by two or more turbine engines. But OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said the policy doesn’t apply to recruiting trips for coaches, who were allowed to make travel arrangements at their own discretion.
"Obviously, the high school season coincides with the college season, so if you want to go see players, you need to have the flexibility and ability to make quick trips," Shutt said.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, an OSU alumna who attended Monday’s memorial, said she plans to encourage universities in Oklahoma to review their rules and restrictions for flights involving students and staff. Fallin said she plans to meet with university officials to see if additional flight regulations need to be put in place.
"As governor, we do want to make sure we protect our faculty, our students, our coaches, the team itself, when it comes to flying, make sure that we have appropriate airplanes, appropriate equipment, engines, pilots, and certainly that we have rules in place so that everybody knows this is the best way to do everything we can to avoid the unfortunate circumstance that we just had," Fallin said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, already has ruled out weather as a factor. Investigators were still trying to determine whether the pilot radioed for help before the plane went down, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said.
According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Branstetter passed a medical examination, was certified to be a commercial pilot and was flight-instrument rated.