Illinois State associate head coach Torrey Ward and deputy athletic director Aaron Leetch were among seven people to die in a plane crash near the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Illinois, early Tuesday morning, it was announced.
University president Larry Dietz confirmed Ward and Leetch were among those killed when a Cessna 414, returning from the Final Four in Indianapolis, crashed just short of the airport after midnight.
Dietz made the announcement in an email to students, faculty and staff, saying "words cannot fully express the grief that is felt."
Local authorities found the wreckage of the plane around 3:15 a.m., Sgt. Bill Tate of the McLean County Sheriff's Office told ESPN.com.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board said its full investigation was expected to take a year to 18 months.
According to his tweet Monday night, Ward had flown to Indianapolis on a private plane to watch the Final Four.
"To lose a bunch of friends much too early is devastating," head coach Dan Muller said in a statement. "To all of the families and friends, my deepest condolences and my prayers are with you. To Aaron Leetch, a friend, colleague, and mentor, I will miss you so much. And to my dear friend Torrey Ward, I love you so much, I will miss you every day and I can't wait to see you again.
"On behalf of our entire program, we appreciate everyone respecting our privacy at this time to grieve, and we will all miss Aaron, Torrey and those involved. We are here for all families and friends, and we will stick together through this tragedy."
Sophomore center Reggie Lynch said Muller informed his players about Ward's death during an 8 a.m. team meeting. He said a local priest also spoke with the team after it had received the news.
Ward, who was divorced, had a fiancée and two children, Torrey and Tamia, Lynch said. He played at UAB before going overseas to start a professional career. Ward was named associate head coach after the 2013-14 season.
"We're all just done," Lynch told ESPN.com. "That was my guy. He was my main man."
"He was just the coolest coach," Lynch said. "He was a good dude, like, he was your friend. He was a great dude. He made friends with everyone. ... I'm hurting so bad right now."
The airport was open and all systems, including its runway lighting, were functioning, although the tower had closed several hours earlier and handed responsibility to an air traffic control facility in Peoria. Radar contact was lost moments before the crash, and a search was launched when the pilot failed to close out his flight plan.
News photos from near the scene showed dense fog. NTSB investigator Todd Fox said the plane was cleared to land in fog and rain but appears to have made a turn away from approaching the runway before crashing. It isn't clear why, he said.
Fox said he didn't know whether the plane was having problems or if the pilot radioed in distress. The plane's engines caught fire on impact, Fox said.
The pilot had flown about 12,000 hours and held an air transport license, which allows a pilot to fly commercial airliners, Fox said.
Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com and The Associated Press contributed to this report.