STILLWATER — The hand-stitched heart with the orange ribbons and the numeral four hangs just inside Jim Littell’s office.
The only words are stitched in simple block letters at the bottom.
KEEPING THEM IN IT FOREVER
More than two years have passed since Oklahoma State women’s basketball coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna were killed in a plane crash. Yet when asked about Budke, the man who followed him to Stillwater, then replaced him as Cowgirls head coach lowers his eyes and struggles for words. Littell admits that his best friend is still a nearly impossible subject to discuss.
Needless to say, Littell was thrust into one of the most difficult situations imaginable.
He has been the right man for the job and then some. Littell not only helped the program heal but also built on what Budke started. The Cowgirls reached No. 8 in the Associated Press poll earlier this season, the program’s highest ranking ever, and will enter the Big 12 Tournament this weekend with 22 wins. OSU has reached the 20-win mark for the third consecutive season, the first time the program has done that since 1989-91.
“I’m very proud of where we finished,” Littell said.
But in the same breath ...
“We’re not satisfied where we’re at right now.”
He’s never had the make-up to where he felt that finishing third in the conference was fine. Whether he was coaching basketball at the high-school, small-college or junior-college level, he has always wanted to win.
That mentality is one of the many things that Littell and Budke had in common. From the time they met at Friends University in Wichita, they bonded over practical jokes and storytelling and the belief that coaching basketball was the best job in the world. And because Budke was the good cop and Littell was the bad one on the court, they were a perfect complement to each other.
When Budke got the head coaching job at OSU, hiring Littell was a no-brainer. Littell had been at Seward County Community College in Kansas for 14 years and had won more than 400 games — a big-time head coaching job might have eventually come his way — but he went to Stillwater to try to help his best buddy build a winner.
Then on a November morning in 2011, the associate head coach who was seen on the bench but largely did his job behind the scenes was thrust into the limelight. He gathered the team around him and told them about the plane crash. He answered questions alongside OSU president Burns Hargis at a press conference. He spoke in front of thousands at the memorial service.
Less than 24 hours after the crash, Littell signed a banner in the lobby of Gallagher-Iba Arena. He addressed it to “Coach”, the name he still uses when talking about Budke.
“I love you and can’t tell you how much I miss you already!”
“I know it’s been extremely hard for him,” former Cowgirl Taylor (Hardeman) Manzelmann said. “You lose your best friend, what do you do in that situation?”
The first order of business was helping the players cope.
“I looked at Coach Budke like a second dad,” said Toni Young, who was a junior on that team, “and after losing him, me and Coach Littell became really close and he filled the shoes of Coach Budke. He became my support system.”
“They will always be my family,” Young said.
While Littell was dealing with his own grief and helping the players through theirs, there were still basketball games to play. Those Cowgirls were a young bunch. Add that to the trauma of the crash and the switch from Budke’s style to Littell’s, and they had their struggles. They lost a bunch of games that they were in but just couldn’t win at the end.
But at the end of that season, they put together a six-game run through the WNIT that Littell believes still resonates today.
“Very positive,” he said. “Get six additional games. Win the WNIT. That helped our kids learn how to win.”
That propelled the Cowgirls to the NCAA Tournament last season even though they lost several players in the wake of the crash and the change in head coach. OSU won its first-round game, then kept Duke on the ropes until the last five minutes of the game.
Now with a 22-7 record in the nation’s toughest conference and six of their seven losses coming against 20-win teams, the Cowgirls are expected to be a five or six seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced in a little over a week. Make a run to the Big 12 title game this weekend, and they could rise even higher.
Players and assistants deserve plenty of credit for what’s happened these past few years, but so does Littell.
“He’s an unbelievable basketball coach,” Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. “I recruited Jamie Talbert from him back in the day when he was at Seward County, and he was an unbelievable coach there. Nobody wanted to play Seward County. He’s a great tactician. He does a great job with strategy, and his kids play really hard for him, and that’s a pretty lethal combination.”
Cowgirls who played under Littell the assistant aren’t surprised at the success that he’s having since becoming the head coach. But since they were around to see Budke and Littell together, they know how close the two men were. They marvel at Littell’s strength these past two-plus years.
“He could have sorrowed, he could have said, ‘No, I’m gonna leave, I’m gonna get away from everybody,’ but he didn’t,” former star Andrea Riley said. “I don’t know if I could do it. But there’s that saying about you never know how strong you are until that’s the only thing you have to be.
“He’s got so much strength.”
Jim Littell will always miss his best friend, but in continuing to build the program at OSU, he is continuing Kurt Budke’s legacy.
Littell is keeping Budke in it forever.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.