Commentary

Return to court will help healing process

Program must find way to persevere without two of its most important figures

Originally Published: November 22, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

STILLWATER, Okla. -- You could say that now is when the hardest part begins for the Oklahoma State women's basketball program.

On Monday afternoon, many of the people who loved Cowgirls coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, and OSU boosters Olin and Paula Branstetter, gathered at the arena where they'd all spent a lot of their best days and nights.

Budke and Serna were in their seventh season at the school. The Branstetters, who married in 1952, were alums who had met while in school here and had been familiar faces at OSU sporting events for decades.

At a memorial service both uplifting and heart-wrenching, the four -- who perished in a plane crash Thursday in Arkansas -- were honored and remembered. At one point, Jim Littell -- one of Budke's closest friends who now steps in to replace him as head coach -- asked the assembled mourners to bypass a moment of silence and instead fill Gallagher-Iba Arena with applause to thank those no longer there for everything they'd done for the program.

[+] EnlargeMemorial
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiFormer Oklahoma State guard Taylor Hardeman, second from left, said Kurt Budke taught her, "If you don't go through the tough times, then the good times don't mean as much."

This old building -- dedicated in 1938 and since refurbished with its cascading bright-orange seats -- reverberated with the sound that players love so much, one that motivates them and pushes them to do more than they thought they could. Thousands clapped -- but on this day, did so while in tears.

Women's basketball players don't take applause for granted. Not even those at UConn or Tennessee, where you might think they are used to it. Because they see, of course, all the places where fan support doesn't happen.

The women who play this sport don't expect campus-wide adulation. But everyone craves appreciation, and competitive athletes want a stage on which to perform and an audience to see it. That's what coaches who work to build women's basketball hope to get for their players.

Budke had made this his life's work. There was no happier time for Oklahoma State women's basketball than the January 2008 night this building was filled to capacity for the "Bedlam" game with Oklahoma, when the Cowgirls ended a 17-game losing streak to the Sooners in a season that would lead to an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.

And there was no sadder time than Monday: a gray, early-winter afternoon when the Oklahoma landscape looked bleak and bland, robbed of most of the green that can make this part of the country lovely in springtime and summer.

It was the kind of day that reminds us why basketball means so much, how it's a respite from the cold and dark, how wonderful it can feel to walk into a warm, brightly lit gymnasium to the sights, sounds and smells of basketball.

Budke and Serna dearly loved that, and in reviving Oklahoma State women's basketball after it had gone so far downhill, they were not just helping their own program. They were boosting the sport in general, creating another place where women's hoops mattered, where there could be real, sustained excitement about the team's accomplishments.

There are no seniors on this year's Cowgirls' squad. So much promise. So much to look forward to. Now, the Cowgirls have to persevere without two of the most important people they expected to have in their college lives.

Former Oklahoma State guard Taylor Hardeman talks about what she learned from Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, and how the program will move forward.

The right coach for the job

Oklahoma State had success under coach Dick Halterman in the 1980s and '90s. When the school pushed him out after the 2002 season -- OSU had not made the NCAA tournament since 1996 -- administrators made a common but damaging mistake: They got rid of a coach because of frustration that his program was treading water, but didn't have a replacement ready who could produce demonstrably better results.

Julie Goodenough came in for three seasons in which she won just eight games combined in Big 12 play. She was a well-liked person in the community, but her coaching success at the Division III level didn't transfer to Division I. By the end of her time at OSU in 2005, the Cowgirls were at the bottom of the league.

Yet Budke, a Kansas native who'd worked for two decades to be ready for such a challenge, saw Oklahoma State as a destination job. He knew he could win here.

Finding the right person to lead a women's basketball program back to relevance -- or to take it there for the first time -- is a more complicated endeavor than it usually is to find the right person to do the same thing on the men's side.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma Memorial Service
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiBaylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey and Texas A&M women's basketball coach Gary Blair listen during the memorial service for the victims of Thursday's plane crash.

In the men's game, just winning is most of the battle toward getting attention. For the women game, there typically has to be a lot more from coaches than the victories: reaching out tirelessly to the community, doing speaking engagements, being personable with the media, and grooming players to be friendly and well-spoken on top of being talented on the court.

Coaches have to keenly understand their realistic recruiting base, their potential fan base, and have the personality to carry everybody else when things seem the worst.

In 1996, when Sherri Coale took over at a depleted Oklahoma program just six years removed from having been briefly abolished entirely, she poured her energy into all the requirements of making women's basketball matter in Norman, and the state in general.

Coale has become a rock star of sorts in Oklahoma, having gone to the Final Four three times. But she has never forgotten the feeling of the early days when she had to console herself with her team just having a good practice, even though they were still so overmatched in games.

Coach Gary Blair went through the same thing at Texas A&M when he arrived in 2003-04. So when Budke took over at Oklahoma State in 2005 and endured a 0-16 league record, he got encouragement from rivals/friends Coale and Blair.

"They both told me, 'You've got to look at the small victories,'" Budke once said of how coaches get through those times when nothing seems to be going right.

On Monday, Blair and Coale -- who brought her entire team -- were in Gallagher-Iba Arena to pay their respects. So were coaches such as Baylor's Kim Mulkey, Kansas' Bonnie Henrickson, Texas Tech's Kristy Curry and Nebraska's Connie Yori. All have patrolled the sidelines here -- and all have pushed themselves to the limit traveling, trying to be in the many places they think they need to be for their jobs. And especially here in the Midwest, sometimes those places are remote and hard to reach.

Yori is still on crutches, having battled a severe staph infection after what was supposed to be a simple surgical procedure on her knee this summer. She reflected on how this awful Oklahoma State accident had to remind coaches about the inherent risks of getting from here to there -- something often overlooked until a tragedy hits.

"Sometimes we have crazy schedules," Yori said. "I don't know how many times we all as coaches probably have driven back from someplace at 3 o'clock in the morning, on icy roads, on two-lane highways. [Budke and Serna] were just trying to do their jobs, and both of them loved what they did."

Jim LittellBrett Deering/Getty ImagesOne former player said Kurt Budke wouldn't want the Cowgirls in anyone else's hands than Jim Littell's.

Littell the perfect fit to step in

In January 2009, North Carolina State's women's basketball players lost their coach during the season. Kay Yow had been battling a recurrence of cancer for more than two years at that point, and the Wolfpack women had experience with adjusting to her not always being at practice.

There is no way, really, to be ready to lose someone you love, but all those involved with NC State at least had the chance to express their gratitude and affection to Yow. They could prepare themselves. Even so, the players dealt with very difficult emotions as they attempted to perform at as high a level as they could despite their grief.

What the Wolfpack didn't have to face that the Cowgirls do is the complete and total shock of the loss -- and that it's not just one coach, but two.

"You hope there's some comfort in having something to distract you from all the sadness, even though it's something so closely tied to what happened," said former OSU player Megan Byford about the solace the current Cowgirls might find in practicing and playing. "That's what [Budke and Serna] would want the players to do: to carry on."

Byford, who finished her OSU playing career in 2010, is now a graduate assistant at Pittsburg State in Kansas. She said all the former Cowgirls want the current players to feel the support of the alums. She also thinks the similarities between Littell and Budke -- who'd been pals since the1980s, when both worked at Friends University in Wichita -- will actually help the process of moving forward.

Coach Budke taught me so much about life -- to fight through the pain and hardship. He'd say if you don't go through the tough times, then the good times don't mean as much. He taught me to take adversity and do something positive with it. … These girls have now faced something that is harder than they could have imagined. He would tell them they can get through it.

-- Former Oklahoma State player Taylor Hardeman

"They are so much alike -- we used to laugh and say they were like frat brothers," Byford said. "They were like dads to us, helping us grow and become young women that would be productive in society.

"And Miranda was there every day with that kind of personality that -- if you were having a bad day and she saw even a trace of gloom on your face -- she was gonna find a way to pick you up. She had such a spark and a presence that will be so missed around here."

Littell and the remaining staff -- Richie Henderson, Bill Annan, Amber Littleton and Lacey Goldwire -- will have to fill shoes that they all know can't really be filled. Right now, the grief is too fresh to think a whole lot beyond day-to-day. But athletic programs can't be run that way, and they're aware of that, too. The work of scouting, preparing, recruiting, teaching, motivating, supervising, encouraging and supporting is, indeed, endless. It has to be done.

Littell and former player Taylor Hardeman both told some funny tales Monday about Budke and Serna, the kind that made everyone laugh and smile just a bit despite the circumstance. Littell joked about a time when he and another assistant talked Budke into running back-door plays against the pressure of Texas A&M, only for them to backfire with turnovers and Budke to volcanically erupt.

Hardeman recounted an inspirational video Serna had made with clips from movies like "Remember the Titans" and "Gladiator" to inspire the team before its 2008 Sweet 16 game against LSU. But when the video started skipping and didn't work properly, Serna just improvised and started acting out the scenes she'd wanted the team to see.

"I know Coach Budke wouldn't want this team in any else's hands but Coach Littell's now," Hardeman said. "And for the players, being around each other, knowing they have the support of the community -- that's very important. We need that to continue.

"Coach Budke and Coach Serna loved those girls, and the girls loved them. As an ex-player, it was really hard to see the looks on their faces today. But I think it will bring them and the people who've been important to the program together, to see we are a family."

For the actual families of Budke, Serna and the Branstetters, the pain and loss will be the most acute. For them to see Oklahoma State's women play basketball -- the Cowgirls' next game is Saturday here in Stillwater -- will be a bittersweet reminder of something that has forever changed. Then again, every day will have moments that remind them of that.

But the Cowgirls' continued success as a program would be a tribute to the lives lost, and Hardeman thinks the players do see that as an opportunity.

"I really think this program will continue to get better," she said. "Coach Littell will do great things here. Coach Budke taught me so much about life -- to fight through the pain and hardship. He'd say if you don't go through the tough times, then the good times don't mean as much.

"He taught me to take adversity and do something positive with it. As an athlete, you're faced with all these things being thrown at you. And these girls have now faced something that is harder than they could have imagined. He would tell them they can get through it."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.