Another air tragedy at Oklahoma State

Two women's basketball coaches killed in plane crash

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — It had been 10 years and 10 months since the plane crash that killed 10 people associated with Oklahoma State's men's basketball program — long enough for the healing to begin but recent enough to rush old memories to the surface when news of another plane crash broke.

This time, two coaches from the women's basketball team had been killed.

"I feel for the Oklahoma State community. How many more tragedies can they endure?" said head coach of top-ranked Baylor, Kim Mulkey.

Kurt Budke, the head coach for the women's basketball team, and Miranda 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 in Stillwater said. 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.

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.

For some, the news brought back the 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."

Roger Engelsman, undersheriff for Adams County in Colorado, the site of the first crash, has attended the service held there each year — a service attended by OSU officials.

"Quite honestly, it takes a lot to surprise me or shock me, but I was just in disbelief," said Engelsman. "My friends at Oklahoma State are suffering in this fashion again.

"What are the odds of two plane crashes, both affecting the basketball programs?" he said.

After the 2001 crash, the university required that planes used by the school's sports team undergo safety checks before travel. OSU President Burns Hargis said coaches were not bound by the same rules and that the school left such decisions to their discretion.

"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 at a news conference Friday, as he broke down in tears.

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 university plans to hold a public memorial service Monday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

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. 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.

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.

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."

Serna, 36, was also devoted to OSU. Top coaches around the country considered her one of the better young recruiters, but she 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.

The Branstetters also had ties to Oklahoma State. Jim Berscheidt, spokesman for the OSU Foundation, confirmed that the Branstetters established two scholarships at the university. He could not disclose how much was given to fund them. One was through the university's College of Education and the other was through the business school.

FAA records showed the plane was built in 1964 and registered to Olin Branstetter. Oklahoma State spokesman Gary Shutt said the coaches were going to watch recruits playing in two games in Little Rock.

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. 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 Piper Cherokee Piper PA-28-180 (N7746W) 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.

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.


Associated Press photographers Sue Ogrocki in Stillwater and Danny Johnston in Perryville, Ark.; writers Jeff Latzke in Stillwater, Okla., and Ken Miller and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; and AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.

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