STILLWATER — Jim Littell stood in front of thousands trying to make sense of another plane crash at Oklahoma State, gathering once again at Gallagher-Iba Arena and grieving another tragedy in the sky.
What could he say?
He is a basketball coach, not a priest or a counselor or an orator.
But he knew Kurt Budke, the former Cowgirl basketball coach who was among the four killed on that single-engine plane last week. The man was both Littell's boss and buddy, so he just talked about his friend.
“Everybody talks about how nice a guy he was,” Littell said. “No doubt.”
He paused, glancing around a crowd that included women's basketball dignitaries and college kids who'd probably never even seen the Cowgirls play.
“But the guy was a competitor.”
On a day when a school and a state needed healing, Littell provided a balm. He was engaging. He was genuine. He was funny.
“That's Coach Littell,” former Cowgirl Shaunte Smith said. “He's a strong man.”
No doubt of that.
Five days ago, he became interim coach of the Cowgirls. His first job was telling his players about the accident that killed Budke and assistant Miranda Serna. Then came a press conference that everyone insisted he didn't need to attend. He not only spoke but also told an amazing, heartfelt story about Budke taking recruits on the court and saying, “Look at this place. Look at this place. I love this place”, and insisting, “He meant it from the heart.”
Then came the memorial service on Monday afternoon.
Littell told one story after another, starting with a tale of Bedlam. Playing one Sunday afternoon in Norman, Budke watched as sparkplug point guard Andrea Riley drove right and headed to the basket. As she did, Oklahoma's own sparkplug point guard, Danielle Robinson, stepped in front of her and got a charging call.
“And Sherri,” Littell said, “I know you're here.”
Sooner coach Sherri Coale was there, having brought her entire team to the memorial. Afterward, in the classiest of moves, the Sooners met with the Cowgirls in a show of support and sympathy.
“It was a horrible call,” Littell deadpanned.
Budke thought so, too.
“Coach jumps about four feet up in the air, comes down, and he's gone to the official,” Littell said. “I yell at him, ‘Coach!'”
Littell's voice got Budke's attention, snapping him back to reality and making him think better of drawing a technical.
“So, now, he pivots and he's headed straight for me on a dead run,” Littell said. “Before I know it, he gives me a forearm shiver in the chest. I'm doubled over.
“He gets to Bruce (Erickson, director of player development) and slaps him upside the head. I look over and Bruce's glasses are sitting like this.”
Littell tilted his own glasses to the side as laughter rippled around Gallagher-Iba.
Megan Byford, another former Cowgirl, saw that kind of goofiness out of Littell all the time. Of course, he was just following Budke's lead.
“They're too alike,” Byford said. “It's kind of scary.”
They told crazy stories about their kids. They pulled practical jokes like hiding behind doors and jumping out to scare people. They fed off each other.
“They're like a couple frat brothers,” Byford said. “They were ornery, but they were like dads to us.”
Littell and Budke didn't always get along, mind you. A few years back, the Cowgirls were playing Texas A&M, a squad that presses and pushes, harasses and hounds, and they were struggling against the Aggies.
Littell came up with an idea.
“Hey, Coach,” he said to Budke. “We've got to run a backdoor. We've got to relieve some pressure.”
Budke called it, and the Cowgirls threw the ball out of bounds.
Later in the game, Erickson suggested that they run the backdoor again but this time to the left instead of the right.
Budke called it, and again, the Cowgirls threw the ball out of bounds.
Budke quickly called timeout. In the coaches' huddle, Littell asked Budke what he was going to tell the players.
“I have nothing to say to the girls,” he said, “but if you two geniuses ever call for another backdoor this year, I'm taking you outside and whipping your (backside).”
I have no idea how good Littell will be with X's and the O's, though his 418-61 record at Seward County Community College in Kansas makes me think he'll do just fine. I have no clue if Littell will switch up the offense or run a different defense.
But really, coaching these Cowgirls will be more about knowing how to handle the emotions, the tears and the sorrows and the meltdowns. Those are bound to come at times both expected and unexpected.
Littell, though, has managed these early days with grace and poise.
“He is going to do an unbelievable job,” former Cowgirl Ally Clardy said. “Coach Budke couldn't have left this program in better hands.”
Anyone who was listening Monday afternoon could tell as much when Jim Littell stood at a microphone and told us about his friend, Kurt Budke.