STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) — Kurt Budke believed in Oklahoma State when no one else did, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
Less than two years after his Cowgirls failed to win any of their 16 conference games, Budke led them up against powerhouse Oklahoma and reigning national player of the year Courtney Paris. He supported his upstart team with quite the fashion statement: the brightest orange blazer he could find.
Behind a scintillating 45-point game from Andrea Riley, the Cowgirls upset the sixth-ranked Sooners for the first time in nine years.
Wherever Budke went, he won.
The charismatic coach who turned the Cowgirls into an NCAA tournament regular was killed along with assistant coach Miranda Serna and two other people in a plane crash in Arkansas late Thursday. The two coaches, who first united as player and coach 16 years ago, had been on a recruiting trip.
Budke frequently offered his players encouragement from the sidelines, but he also could be firm, raising his deep voice. And on more than one occasion, he grabbed a microphone to speak to the Gallagher-Iba Arena crowd after a win.
“Coach Budke was a ball coach. What he did to turn this program around was unbelievable but that’s not important right now,” said Jim Littell, Budke’s assistant who will replace him on an interim basis.
“What’s important is he was a father figure for these kids. He had a tremendous knack of taking kids that maybe were struggling in some part of their life and making it better for them. That was his strongest trait.”
Serna, 36, was one of his top helpers along the way. Before spending the last seven seasons at OSU, she played on one of his four teams that won the junior-college national title at Trinity Valley (Texas) and was his assistant at Louisiana Tech for the last of three straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
The Guadalupita, N.M., native was his recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State, which has been to the postseason the past five years. University President Burns Hargis said Serna was the first in her family to go to college.
“I loved her energy for the game,” Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach Travis Ford said. “She had a great enthusiasm for the game. She enjoyed recruiting and she enjoyed the process of that and just had a warm heart.”
When Budke took over the program, the Cowgirls had finished with a losing record in five of their previous seven seasons and never finished more than a game over .500 during that span.
The Cowgirls went 0-16 in Big 12 play in his first season, then secured their first bid to the NCAA tournament in 11 years. The next year brought a trip to the round of 16.
“You learn how to lose, and that’s a bad habit,” he once said of those early struggles. “Sometimes, it’s easier to lose than to fight back, so we had to change habits and expectations.”
Budke had little to sell but a dream, but it was enough to convince the WNBA-bound Riley to come make her mark. She left as the program’s career scoring leader.
“I came to this league because I wanted to coach against the best, night in and night out,” he once said. “These players that want to come play for us want to play against the best. That’s how we go out and recruit.”
A Salina, Kan., native, Budke was a married father of three, including a daughter currently at Oklahoma State.
“I looked at him almost as a mentor,” Ford said. “I can’t tell you how many times I would pick up the phone and ask him how he ran his zone offense. He’d come down to the office or I’d go up to his and we would sit and talk.
“Just somebody who I had the utmost respect for as a person and a husband and father and obviously as a coach. In this profession, the way it gets crazy at times, he had everything in perspective.”
Ford called Budke “a complete father figure” for his team.
“It’s his personality, his greatest strength,” Ford said. “He just really had great relationships with the girls and could communicate with them.”
Budke played basketball for Barton County (Kan.) Junior College and graduated from Washburn in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. After some early small-college jobs, he built the JUCO powerhouse at Trinity Valley before hooking up with Louisiana Tech, once one of the top programs in the women’s game.
“When I first went there and got into the gym office, I saw eight players in the outer office hanging around, enjoying themselves and relaxing,” said Leon Barmore, who made nine Final Four trips with the Lady Techsters and also hired Budke.
“This was a player’s coach. The players loved to play for him. He presented an environment which was relaxing. He made you feel warm and at ease, that always stood out to me.”
After playing for Budke, Serna went on to finish her playing career at Houston before returning to Trinity Valley to start her coaching career under Budke. They won another JUCO national title together in 1999 before Serna gained more experience as an assistant at three other schools.
Budke hired her again for his final year at Louisiana Tech, then brought her along to Stillwater.
“Miranda was a really great person,” said Carlene Mitchell, another of Budke’s former players from Trinity Valley who’s now the coach at UC Santa Barbara.
“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.”
Budke moved to Louisiana Tech when Kim Mulkey left to become the coach at Baylor, where she has won a national championship and currently has the No. 1 team in the country.
“It just hits home with all of us in this profession that truly we just coach a game,” Mulkey said, adding that she turned to her son and started crying when she heard the news.
“There’s a bigger picture out there and it’s not a basketball game, it puts life in perspective. I feel for the Oklahoma State community, how many more tragedies can they endure?”
The crash is 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.
Mitchell has a link to both. In addition to playing for one of Budke’s national championship teams, she was an assistant at Oklahoma State in 2001. She was floored when she heard the news.
“He was just an amazing man,” Mitchell said. “I’m so sick and sad. He helped me get the job out here and was so excited when I got hired. He was screaming into the phone.
“You want to say that Oklahoma State is cursed with those two tragedies.”
Sherri Coale, the coach at rival Oklahoma, remembered Budke as a fantastic coach, a tremendous competitor, a devoted father and husband and a humble but courageous leader of young people.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair called Serna a rising star in recruiting and Budke his closest friend in the Big 12, with both sharing experience at Louisiana Tech.
“He was a devout family man and the conversation never stopped without us talking about our own kids, not just the players we coached,” Blair said. “Life is precious. We must enjoy it and we must respect it because it can be taken away at any time.”