STILLWATER — Ally Clardy's recruiting trip to Oklahoma State was going splendidly, to the point that she sensed a scholarship offer was imminent.
And Cowgirls basketball coach Kurt Budke indeed offered. But it was what he said next that confirmed to her that he was the right coach and the right man to play a prominent role in the next four years of her life.
“This is how much of a family man Coach Budke is,” Clardy said, “it was Father's Day when he asked me to commit. My dad wasn't with me, my mom was, and when he asked, ‘Will you commit to us?' I was like, ‘Absolutely.' I almost fell out of my chair.
“And he said, ‘No, no, no, you're going to go home and talk to your dad, then you call me and let me know.' That was him, it was about family first.
“I know that he wanted me to join his family, but he was like, ‘You go to your dad. You sit down with your dad, you talk to your dad and you make sure this is the best decision.' And it was the best decision I ever made.”
Clardy, a Cowgirl from 2007-2010, joined several former teammates and thousands more Monday at the memorial service to celebrate Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna and Olin and Paula Branstetter, all lost in a plane crash Thursday in Arkansas.
The common theme among the former Cowgirls was how much Budke influenced their lives. As a coach, yes, but also as a mentoring force, even a father figure.
“Hard-headed. Tough. But a very loving man,” said Taylor Hardeman, who played for Budke from 2005-09. “He was very father like.
“He always wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing, checking on us every day, not being so much a crazy father, but one who was making sure you were where you were supposed to be and do what's told and do it to the best of your ability.”
Budke had expectations of his Cowgirls.
“He always put the Lord first,” Hardeman said. “I remember him saying to us, ‘Are you all in church?' One thing I always remember, we would have practice but it would always be late. Regardless of who else was in the gym, it had to be late, because we all had to go to church, we had to eat lunch with our families, and then it was school and then it was basketball.”
And the fatherly touch didn't end when the eligibility expired.
Shaunte' Smith, a Cowgirl from 2005-09, is now an assistant coach at Carl Albert State College in Poteau. Budke led her there.
“You knew at the end of the day and when your career was over that he was always going to be there for you,” Smith said. “He's just such a kind, genuine kind of guy.
“And he always has your back. I would email him and call him, and he always had suggestions on whether I should coach or something like that. When I had trouble with my family, he was there, telling me I had to focus.”
Budke's former players marvel at the way he balanced being tough, and yet soft; intense, then cutting up.
“He had a way, it probably came from being a parent,” said Megan Byford, who played at OSU from 2007-10. “And that's how he treated us, like his own kids.
“He was tough on us when he knew we needed it, but he had compassion and knew when to lighten up and lighten the mood a little bit, too.”
And nothing ever lightened the mood like that bold orange blazer he'd wear for big games. It remains a favorite moment and story for those Cowgirls.
A gift before OSU's upset of Oklahoma in 2008, Budke first broke it out for that Bedlam encounter.
“We're warming up, and he's got on his all black,” said Hardeman. “I said, ‘Coach, where's your orange?' He was like, ‘You just wait for the orange.'
“Then he comes busting through the locker room, yelling like I've never heard in my life. And he thought he looked so good and he was so proud. He said, ‘Hardeman, look what I have!'
“I was just laughing, because it was so funny.”
The Cowgirls will miss Budke in that orange blazer, which was wrapped around his chair on the bench during Monday's memorial service.
They will miss the life lessons, too. And the love.
“Silently, he taught us things I don't think he even knows,” Clardy said. “And that's what's hard, I wish I could tell him. I wish I could tell him all he did. I know he knows some things, but there are things I wish we wouldn't have held back.
“I think that's something we're all going to take from this. When there's something you want to tell someone you love, you tell them. And you say thank you. Life is too short. None of us understand what or why. It doesn't seem real.
“But I wish I had another hug. His hugs were the best. You could tell he was a dad when he hugged you. The hugs are what I'll miss. And they're hugs that I'll never forget.”