Kurt Budke, Miranda Serna die in crash

Updated: November 18, 2011, 11:56 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Oklahoma State, 10 months removed from commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the deaths of 10 men affiliated with its men's basketball program, was again struck with its "worst nightmare" Friday after learning women's coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna died in a plane crash a day earlier.

Their plane went down in Perry County, Ark., also killing the pilot -- 82-year-old former Oklahoma state Sen. Olin Branstetter -- and his wife, Paula. There were no survivors.

Kurt Budke
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinOklahoma State coach Kurt Budke, 50, had opened his seventh season as the Cowgirls' coach on Sunday with a win over Rice in Stillwater.

Budke, 50, had opened his seventh season as the Cowgirls' coach on Sunday with a 96-60 win over Rice in Stillwater.

"This is our worst nightmare. The entire OSU family is very close, very close indeed," OSU president Burns Hargis said at a news conference Friday. "To lose anyone, especially these two individuals who are incredible life forces in our family, it is worse beyond words.

"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 teams 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 canceled.

The Cowboys' second-ranked college football team was upset 37-31 in double overtime at Iowa State on Friday night.

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.

Kansas State, the only women's team in the Big 12 competing Friday night, held a moment of silence before playing visiting Missouri State. Coaching staff and support staff also wore orange ribbons in honor of Budke and Serna.

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 spiraled 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.

[+] EnlargeMiranda Serna

AP Photo/Oklahoma StateAssistant coach Miranda Serna had played on Kurt Budke's 1996 national championship team at Trinity Valley Community College.

On Jan. 27, 2001, a plane that took off near Boulder, Colo., after a men's game, crashed east of Denver, killing two players, four team officials, a play-by-play announcer, a radio engineer and two pilots.

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 plane that crashed in 2001, a Beechcraft King Air 200, had been donated by a school booster.

Travis Ford, the Oklahoma State men's basketball coach, said he was told of the crash Friday at 6 a.m. and went directly to Budke's house.

"I just found out and there are so many unanswered questions," Ford said. "I just saw him. We talked every single day. He came to my shootarounds. It just doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem real."

Doug Gottlieb, an ESPN radio show host and college basketball analyst who starred as a point guard for Oklahoma State from 1997 to 2000, called Budke a "very good coach and better man."

"It doesn't seem fair or real or possible that ... 10 months removed from the 10-year anniversary in which we celebrate the lives of the 10 that were lost, that here we are again," Gottlieb said. "But it doesn't seem right it could happen to anyone, let alone the same university."

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.

Ford I just found out and there are so many unanswered questions. I just saw him. We talked every single day. He came to my shootarounds. It just doesn't seem real.

-- Travis Ford, the Oklahoma State
men's basketball coach

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 coordinator 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.

Budke had turned the Cowgirls around from a team that finished winless in the Big 12 in his first season to a perennial conference contender.

"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."

In 2010, Budke led the Cowgirls to the program's most successful season, as they reached the second round of the NCAA tournament after a school-record six wins against Top 25 teams. They also finished with a top-10 ranking for the first time, recording 24 victories. Oklahoma State advanced to the second round of the WNIT in 2011, the Cowgirls' fifth straight postseason appearance.

Budke, a 1984 graduate of Washburn University, earned a master's degree at Wichita State in 1985. As a player, he earned all-conference honors at Barton County Junior College in 1981.

Budke, born June 3, 1961, leaves wife Shelley; daughter Sara, who is a student at Oklahoma State; and sons Alex and Brett.

Serna, 36, stuck with Budke as the Cowgirls rose from a losing program into one that made the postseason 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.

After Friday's news conference, tearful Oklahoma State staff members and supporters comforted each other in the hallway of Heritage Hall. A banner was laid out for students and faculty to sign with messages for Budke and Serna.

Former Cowgirl Taylor Hardeman left a message: "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."

Outside the gym, a bouquet of orange daisies and two large orange flowers were left near the statue of a kneeling Cowboy, part of the memorial to those lost in the 2001 crash. Shutt said a memorial was being planned for Monday.

"I don't know a lot about what happened or about how it happened, but I know they are gone," Hargis said. "But I know they're here in our hearts."

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and Dana O'Neil, and The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE