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.