Coach, assistant die in plane crash
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
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 weather at the time was clear.
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.
“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.”
The school 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.
Budke coached Serna and Trinity Valley to a junior college national title in 1996. Serna, 36, 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.
Top coaches around the country considered Serna, 36, one of the better young recruiters.