Jim Littell has continued to build on what Kurt Budke started

More than two years have passed since OSU 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 lovers his eyes and struggles for words.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: March 6, 2014 at 8:35 pm •  Published: March 6, 2014
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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.


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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