EAST LANSING, Mich. — Shelley Budke wondered what the heck had gotten into her husband. There he was Friday night, laughing. Smiling. Relaxing, for goodness sakes. Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke never does that on road trips. "I'm so proud of you,” Shelley told him after the Cowgirls arrived in East Lansing, Mich., for the NCAA Tournament. Kurt said, "I'm gonna enjoy it for a little while.” No one deserved to savor the success of the Cowgirls more than Budke. He took over a program shut out of the NCAA Tournament since 1996 and relegated to the bottom of the Big 12 Conference. Less than two years later, the Cowgirls are dancing. To understand how a team picked to finish last in its own league got to the NCAA Tournament, you must first understand how Budke got to Stillwater. It's a journey that included unloading delivery trucks in the wee hours of the morning, doing night security armed only with a bat and taking over a team that had four players. Budke was able to raise OSU from the almost nothing because that's where he started. "Too many people have that silver spoon in their mouth,” he said. "They don't pay their dues. I'm a big believer in coaches and player paying their dues.” He steeled his eyes. "I think I paid my dues.” After several years as a small-college assistant, Budke spent a decade coaching junior college ball. He arrived at OSU from Louisiana Tech, long an elite program in women's basketball, but Budke's pedigree is blue-collar, not blue-blood. "Coach is one of those guys that has never forgot his roots, never forgot where he came from,” Cowgirl assistant and longtime friend Jim Littell said. "He never forgot he loaded UPS boxes at 4 o'clock in the morning.” And he never wants to either.
‘What I worked to get'Kurt Budke started his coaching sojourn in a cramped apartment in Wichita. Not exactly the bottom rung but close enough to see it from there. He took his first coaching job as a men's assistant at Friends University, earning about $1,000 a year. He roomed with Littell, then the Friends women's coach, a few blocks from the Wichita campus and took a part-time job at UPS. He went to work at 4:30 a.m., loading trucks for four hours and trying to make ends meet. "He was broke, I guarantee you that,” Littell said. Budke's finances improved little when he moved to Kansas City Kansas Community College several years later. His annual salary: $1,500. Even though his wife made $10,000 or $12,000 a year, that wasn't enough to survive. So in addition to being a men's assistant, Budke worked three part-time jobs. T-shirt salesman. Security guard. Maintenance man. "I swept hallways. I planted flowers. I dumped trash,” he said of the job at their apartment complex. But just as the season was about to start, the women's basketball coach quit. The athletic director asked Budke if he would take the job. "I've seen 'em,” he said. "There's only three or four on the team.” Not even enough to field a team. "We'll pay you $500 more,” the athletic director told him, saying the magic words. Budke's first duty as the women's coach was putting an advertisement in the school newspaper. Wanted: players. "This is a true story now,” Budke said. "We had a 33-year-old mom with three kids that came to me and said, ‘Now, Coach, I'm going to school. I can help you as long as I can, but I've got to be able to bring my kids to practice.' "So, we had a playpen in one corner.” The team won only a couple games that season, but if his players outscored their opponent during a four-minute stretch, Budke would call a timeout to congratulate them. "We might be down 30,” he'd tell them, "but we won that last four minutes.” The on-court struggles were hardly Budke's only worry. Money would get tight at home, and he would wonder if he should take a high school job. The salary would be better. Ditto for the stability. But he had friends in the coaching business who said he might never come back to college coaching if he left. The Budkes decided to pay the price even if it made paying the bills more difficult. After a stint at Allen County Community College in Kansas, Budke got his big break. He took over the women's team at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas, a program on the cusp of a championship. His first season there, Trinity Valley won the first of four national titles. Then came Louisiana Tech. Then, Oklahoma State. "I knew Louisiana Tech wasn't my last stop,” Budke said. "I knew I wanted to get to a place that truly wanted to be a competitor and have a chance to win a national championship. "This is what I worked to get to.”
‘You can't forget'Shelley Budke watched her husband out on the Breslin Center court Saturday afternoon and knew his mood had changed. The smiles were fewer. The laughs were gone. Even as the Cowgirls practiced for Bowling Green, the relaxation of Friday was giving way to the anticipation of game day. "He's been through the trenches to get here,” Shelley said as she watched. "That's why he appreciates it so much.” Why Kurt Budke cares so much, too. "You can't forget where you came from,” he said. "That is vital.”
Oklahoma State vs. Bowling Green•When: 1:30 p.m. today
•Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.
•Radio: KGFY-FM (105.5)
•TV: ESPN (Cox 29) Projected lineups
|Oklahoma State (20-10)|
|Bowling Green (29-3)|