Kurt Budke worked his way to the top

Kurt Budke had that way about him that people have when they've started on the basement floor and climbed up. He came by that determination by watching his parents. His father, John, worked for Southwestern Bell in Kansas for 45 years. Started as a lineman and moved all the way into management, Kurt was proud to say.

"I liked what my dad did, and how he did it," Budke said in 2006 after a game as we talked about his career. "He went through the whole thing, he scaled the poles. He turned down a bunch of jobs along the way where they wanted to transfer him to Topeka or Kansas City. It would have meant more money, but family was vital to him and he wanted to raise us in Salina."

"So … your dad was a Salina lineman, not a Wichita lineman?" I said, not being able to resist a little Glen Campbell joke.

Budke laughed, and it was nice to see he could keep his sense of humor in the midst of a grindingly difficult season. It was his first at Oklahoma State, a program that once had been competitive in women's basketball but essentially had fallen apart. Budke had come to fix it, but had to endure a 6-22 record to start the process.

"How we're playing the game is not how I think it's supposed to be played," he said then. "It's by far the toughest thing I've ever been through."

Now, tragically, Budke's family, that of assistant Miranda Serna, and their Oklahoma State team are facing one of the toughest things they've ever been through. Budke and Serna were killed in a small-plane crash in Arkansas on Thursday during a recruiting trip.

That such an accident would hit Oklahoma State again -- this time with the women's basketball program, nearly 11 years after the men's team was so devastated by a plane crash -- seems inconceivable.

Just a month ago in Kansas City at Big 12 media day, Budke cheerfully was looking ahead to this season, anticipating noticeable improvement in the Cowgirls.

"I'm really anxious to see the step we've taken," he said. "I've seen it in practice already. I can't wait to get to the games.

"I can't put them in the Sweet 16 type of [category] yet. But the good thing about this team is everybody will be back next year when we're sitting here talking again."

We all take those things for granted, of course. That there will be a next game … and a next season … and a next time to grin at someone and say hi.

But then, suddenly, there isn't. And we're left with remembering.

If you're a women's basketball fan, you know how much Budke has meant to revitalizing the Cowgirls' program. If you don't follow the sport, this terrible news probably caught your eye because of the eerie connection to the January 2001 accident that caused so much grief and is memorialized at Gallagher-Iba Arena in a haunting tribute to the Oklahoma State 10.

You might not know much, if anything, about Budke, but he's a guy you would have liked a lot. You could shoot the bull with him about all sports because he followed everything. You could jokingly fib about your last round of golf, or brag about your kids. You would know you were talking to someone who appreciated everything he had because he had worked so hard for it.

"Not many people in Division I have been at places where they were the coach, the counselor, the bus driver and swept the floors," he would say. "All those experiences I look back on, and am thankful I went through them."

That January night nearly six years ago in Stillwater, Okla., when I sat for a long time with Budke reflecting on his background, was just one of the times we talked about a variety of things. We were both Midwesterners; he was only a few years older than me. In that instance, his team had just lost its fifth consecutive conference game. And it wouldn't get any better that season, as the Cowgirls would go 0-16 in the Big 12. It was hard, but he wasn't discouraged.

"I appreciate every day that Oklahoma State gave me this opportunity to be a coach in the Big 12," he said. "We're not going to let them down. We're going to turn this program around."

Remarkably, just two seasons later, he would take Oklahoma State to the Big 12 tournament title game and the NCAA Sweet 16, led by guard Andrea Riley. The Cowgirls went 27-8 in 2007-08. They lost some key players and were in the WNIT in 2009. Back in the NCAA tournament in 2010. Then the WNIT again last year with Riley having graduated.

Budke had lifted a program that had devolved into being virtually noncompetitive in the Big 12 and given it realistic hopes of NCAA tournament inclusion every year. You could tell how excited he was about this season and about how many building blocks were in place.

Paying his dues

Speaking of blocks, Budke used to have little kids playing with those during his practices.

Budke started his coaching career in 1984 as a graduate assistant with the men's team at his alma mater, Washburn, in Topeka, Kan. Then he was an assistant at Friends University, where, as an assistant with the men's team at the Wichita school, he met his future wife, Shelley, who was playing for Friends women's team. His boss at Friends, Ron Heller, told him he couldn't date Shelley until after her career was over.

"He was always a stickler about that," Budke said. "The day my wife played her last game, I said to him, 'Is it OK to ask her out now?' He said, 'Absolutely.'"

Kurt and Shelley would have three children, and she'd stick by him as he advanced up the coaching ladder. He went to Kansas City Kansas Community College, hired as an assistant for the men's team. When the women's team's head coach bailed before the first game, the administration asked whether Budke would coach that team, too, for $500 for the season.

"When I first started, there was no way I was going to coach women," he said. "I had the dreams of being a head coach on the men's side. But when I started with the women's team, I figured out quickly that if the young women believe in you, they will give you their heart and soul. They'll run through a wall for you a lot quicker than most men will."

His first KCKCC team initially had just four players. He had to scramble to field a starting five, putting an ad in the school newspaper. One of the respondents actually had some ability -- but she also was a 33-year-old mother.

"She said, 'I've got to be able to bring my kids to practice,'" Budke said. "So we'd put a playpen in one corner and toys in another corner while we'd play three-on-three. That team obviously didn't win very much and wasn't expected to. But I'll never forget those women -- you talk about six players who gave me everything they had. It turned me on to women's basketball, and I haven't looked back since."

Budke next moved, in 1991, to Allen County Community College in Kansas, then to Trinity Valley Junior College in Texas in 1993. He spent seven seasons at Trinity Valley, going 226-16 and winning four juco national championships and finishing second twice.

By 2000, he'd been involved in coaching for 16 years without having worked at an NCAA Division I school. He had learned how to scour the country for unnoticed or undeveloped talent. How to coax and encourage kids who dealt with academic difficulties and family dysfunction. How to make every penny count with a shoestring budget.

And he knew how to coach. His father, the lifelong telephone company man, had guided Kurt in youth-league baseball and had always dreamed of what it would be like to coach professionally. His son was doing that, and inching his way to a big breakthrough.

It came at Louisiana Tech, a two-time NCAA champion program, where Budke first was Leon Barmore's assistant, then took over as head coach for the 2002-03 season. Budke went 80-16 in three seasons running the Lady Techsters, then got the chance to take over at Oklahoma State.

Sure, the Cowgirls were a complete mess at the time, but he saw the potential. And it was like going home; Stillwater is a three-and-a-half hour drive from Salina, where his parents still lived. Kurt had played basketball in high school in Salina, and he joked that his skill on court was, "Knowing who was the best player and how to get him the ball."

Actually, he was better than that as a prep and small-college player: A blue-collar grinder who scored when he needed to and took charges whenever he had the chance to. He brought that mindset to Oklahoma State -- get the ball to the best players, and everybody else pitch in however you can.

Riley was his best, and he took some heat at times for what some thought was coddling her temper and for letting her shoot and shoot and shoot. But he felt that, if you had that kind of shooter, you rode it as far as it would take you. He believed she was a good person who sometimes made bad decisions out of emotion, and he stood by her.

The team he had this year would be more balanced, more athletic, bigger and ready to make a leap forward. His enthusiasm over their potential was obvious.

Those heartbroken players now will have to try to do that without him, and without Serna, a New Mexico native who had played for Budke at Trinity Valley and had reminded him of himself. She was the same kind of tireless worker, and, in a recruiting world where people can make enemies so easily among peers, she was well-liked. When you thought of her, you always thought of her smile.

Somehow, the Cowgirls -- who won their opening game against Rice on Sunday but have canceled games this weekend in Stillwater -- will play as best they can for themselves and for Jim Littell, the associate head coach who takes over. Like Budke, he spent many years working toward Division I as a successful junior college coach.

The grief that all those at Oklahoma State feel is hard to even measure. The memories will have to sustain them. Sadly, so many affiliated with the school already know that too well. What happened a decade ago can still seem like yesterday.

And everyone who got to know Budke, in the Big 12 and throughout the nation, will remember with them. We would always laugh when he'd break out his neon-orange blazer for big games. I'd joke that it was visible from outer space.

It won't be on the Oklahoma State sideline any more. We will all still see it, though.

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