STILLWATER, Okla. - Kurt Budke turned Oklahoma State's women's basketball team into a winner and hoped he'd found the place where he'd coach until he retired. Miranda Serna had passed up opportunities to leave his side, staying loyal to the man whom she had helped to win a junior college national championship and then rebuild a big-time college program.
Having succeeded together, Budke and Serna died together - perishing in a plane crash on a trip aimed at building their team's future.
Budke, the head coach, and Serna, his assistant, were killed Thursday when the single-engine plane transporting them on a recruiting trip crashed in steep terrain in Arkansas, the university said Friday. The pilot, 82-year-old former Oklahoma state Sen. Olin Branstetter, and his 79-year-old wife, Paula, also died when the plane sputtered, spiraled out of control and nosedived into the Winona Wildlife Management Area near Perryville, about 45 miles west of Little Rock.
There were no survivors.
"This is our worst nightmare. The entire OSU family is very close, very close indeed," OSU President Burns Hargis said at a news conference. "To lose anyone, especially these two individuals who are incredible life forces in our family, it is worse beyond words."
The crash was 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.
"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 team 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
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"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.
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.
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 Jan. 27, 2001, crash occurred about 35 minutes after the plane took off in light snow. The Beechcraft King Air 200 carrying players and others connected to the OSU men's basketball team crashed in a field 40 miles east of Denver as the Cowboys returned from a game at Colorado.
An NTSB report cited a power loss aboard the plane and said the pilot suffered disorientation while flying the plane manually with still-available instruments.
"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."
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