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Friday, November 18, 2011
Women's college basketball reeling with sadness

By Michelle Smith

Grief, devastation and mourning aren't supposed to keep showing up like this.

The horrible news that women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna had died Thursday in a plane crash brings more sadness to Oklahoma State, a campus that has known more than its fair share of it.

It brings more sadness to college sports -- on the heels of the Penn State scandal -- in one of the most gut-wrenching months in memory.

And it brings more sadness to women's basketball.

When Pat Summitt announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, it was a punch in the gut. It took more than few moments to catch your breath and process what you had heard. It hurt.

To be hit, first thing Friday morning, with the news about Budke and Serna, sends us all back to the mat, dizzied and disbelieving.

Budke and Serna were returning from a recruiting trip. And they leave behind a devastated team and a stunned college basketball community that will spend the rest of this season absorbing their loss.

As difficult as Summitt's news was, she was returning to the sideline. She has been able to turn her terrible diagnosis into a cause, something to be conquered … if not by her, then by those who come after her. Her legendary coaching career, which could well end in the next couple of years, is getting the recognition and tribute it demands. She is here to hear it.

Budke and Serna will not be. Their untimely, shocking deaths are simply, unbelievably sad. That their deaths happened just more than a decade after Oklahoma State mourned the deaths of 10 members of the men's basketball staff, who also died in a plane crash, seems utterly unfair.

Sadness engulfed the women's basketball community Friday morning.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said in a statement Friday that Budke was the coach he was closest to among his Big 12 colleagues. They both had been assistants at Louisiana Tech.

"I talked to him two weeks ago about general stuff on recruiting and possibly continuing to play after we went to the SEC," Blair said. "We both agreed it would probably take a few years, but we were both going to miss the games we've had over the past years."

"The man upstairs doesn't tell us when," he said, "and it's just a tremendous tragedy and loss for Oklahoma State and their families.

"Life is precious. We must enjoy it and we must respect it because it can be taken away at any time."

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who also had a close relationship with Budke from his time coaching at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech, said she was "devastated" by the news of his death when she received the call Friday morning.

"I just looked at my son and started crying," Mulkey said in a statement. "It just hits home with all of us in this profession that truly we just coach a game. 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? I told [Oklahoma State associate head coach] Jim Littell this morning: Whatever we can do, please allow us to do it."

This coaching life is familiar to many: strategizing and directing players in a game one night and hopping on a small plane to see a recruit the next morning. You don't get the benefit of doing only one thing at once. You coach the team you have and build the team you'll have next year and the year after that.

But on Friday morning, everything stopped.

This women's basketball season will be played under a veil of sadness.

There will be great games. There will be great performances. New players will vault into the national scene and give us all reason to be excited and enthusiastic.

Even though it's only November, this was going to be a big weekend in the game, with No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Notre Dame playing in the championship of the Women's Preseason NIT on Sunday. And on Monday, fifth-ranked Stanford travels to play No. 4 Connecticut in one of the biggest early-season matchups of the year.

Now there will be a heaviness that will accompany all these teams onto the floor. Every team in the country is going to feel it. There's just no way around it. It hurts.