The news that Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna were killed in a plane crash last night hit me like a punch to the stomach this morning.
I heard the news on the radio while driving into the office today. I immediately thought back to the OSU men’s basketball plane crash, and then a few years earlier to my time at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas.
I was a cheerleader and sports editor at the school paper there from 1997-99; Budke was the basketball coach while I was there.
He was a dominant coach at the junior college level. The two years I was at Trinity Valley, the Lady Cardinals lost one game — the national championship game my freshman year. That was a tough loss for Budke. He grew up in Kansas, and brought his team home to play in the NJCAA tourney in Salina, Kan.
My sophomore year, Budke’s team went undefeated, making it back to Salina to sweep through the national tournament. When I went to Budke’s hotel room after the championship game to interview him for my newspaper story, I didn’t expect him to give me the time of day.
Earlier that year, I wrote a scathing column — the kind of column only a 19- or 20-year-old wannabe journalist would write — because Budke had kicked the cheerleading team out of the gym one day so his team could practice. I said he didn’t have any respect for anyone else, essentially that he thought he and his team were God’s gift. Budke was ticked off in a big way. He dressed down my cheerleading coach and I think my newspaper adviser as well.
And then, just a few months later, here I go wandering into the man’s hotel room looking for a quote about an undefeated season and a national championship.
Budke was sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, surrounded by his assistant coaches, his family, and others. He was smoking a huge cigar — the smile on his face was just as big.
He recognized me and waved me over, the smile never leaving his face. I congratulated him on winning, probably looking a little sheepish because I didn’t know what I was about to get in return. It was the first time I had spoken to him since my boneheaded column was published.
Budke didn’t bring up the column. Didn’t look down on me. He gave me the quotes I needed. We chatted for a couple minutes. He was happy and satisfied, what you’d expect from someone who was on top of his profession and place in life.
Fast forward eight years to the spring of 2007. I had since graduated from Oklahoma State and moved on to my job here in The Oklahoman’s news department. I traveled up to Stillwater in March as a fan to watch the OSU men’s team play Marist in a first-round NIT game. At halftime, on my way back to my seat from the concession stand, I spotted Budke holding court in the concourse overlooking the Gallagher-Iba court. It was the first time I had seen him since 1999.
He was sitting on a 20-10 record and had learned just days earlier that OSU was headed back to the NCAA women’s tourney. This had to be especially satisfying since the team had gone 6-22 the year before in Budke’s first year. I walked up and introduced myself. He gave me an “I know you from somewhere” look. I told him I was a cheerleader and sports editor at Trinity Valley. His eyes lit up. I told him several Trinity Valley cheerleaders had transferred to OSU and we were all thrilled that he had found his way to Stillwater as well, and that he’d returned the Cowgirls to prominence.
In his seven years at Trinity Valley, he lost only a handful of games. He sent several players on to Division I hoops. He brought Serna — a player for him on his 1996 championship team and an assistant on the 1999 championship team — to Oklahoma State to grow her young coaching career. It was no surprise to me he could bring victories to Stillwater as well.
What did surprise me was how excited he was to talk to me at that basketball game in 2007. We talked for about 10 minutes — he wanted to know what I was doing with my life and how Trinity Valley’s old cheerleading coach was doing. He motioned his wife to come over and talk. She seemed just as thrilled to relive the connection to the Trinity Valley days. The cheerleading team at TVCC was one of the best in the country, and everyone at the school had a lot of pride in the squad — even the other athletes and coaches. I could feel that even eight years later. I thought about how dumb my column was.
And then fast forward to this morning. Sitting in my car, driving my son to school. Frantically turning up the volume on the radio when I thought I heard the words “OSU” and “plane crash.”
It’s hard to believe this has happened. How could OSU suffer through another plane crash? How can more OSU families have to receive those devastating phone calls?
I try to think about Budke sitting in that hotel room in Salina. That smile and that overwhelming sense of satisfaction. He had accomplished so much.
I was hoping to see him accomplish much more.