ST. LOUIS — Travis Ford stared into his nearly empty locker in Gallagher-Iba Arena. All that was left was the orange blazer.
He packed most of what he collected during the past eight years. Some items were tossed aside. Other pieces would go with him, wherever his next step was. They were memories to carry forward as his tenure as the Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach came to a somewhat expected but painful end.
Ford knew he should leave the bright, almost neon orange blazer hanging inside, but he couldn’t leave the memories, too.
In Oklahoma, in Stillwater, in the arena where Kurt Budke once tramped alongside the benches of Eddie Sutton Court in his own orange blazer, Ford left a jacket that came to symbolize the appreciation of a friend he never said goodbye to.
Instead, he said goodbye to the jacket.
Five years ago Thursday, Budke, then the OSU women’s basketball coach, as well as assistant coach Miranda Serna and donors Olin and Paula Branstetter, died in a plane crash in Perryville, Arkansas.
For the second time in a decade, OSU was left to ask a question that too often goes unanswered: “Why?”
Five years later, Ford has no answer. He sits in his new office inside Chaifetz Arena at Saint Louis University, where he was hired 12 days after his time at OSU ended. The walls are blue and bare. Frames rest against them waiting to be hung.
Ford’s fire remains. He worries it comes to light too often. Budke always did such a good job of remaining calm. He was what Ford strives to be.
“I always wanted to do better,” Ford said. “I can lose my cool way too much and show my emotions too much at times. I can’t tell you how many times, as a coach, after he passed, that I would think, ‘Man, I want to be like him.’”
Ford is still searching for the right phrases. Half a decade before, he left so much unsaid.
“Words can’t express how much I thought of him as a person,” Ford said. “I think about him, I think about him a lot. I don’t think he probably knew how much I admired him.”
The genuine giant
Kurt Budke had no trouble proving he belonged in Stillwater.
“As long as you’re genuine, you’re in,” Larry Reece said. “And Kurt Budke was genuine.”
Reece is the public address announcer for OSU’s football and men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as a senior associate athletic director for development. He watched Budke weave his way into a community he has spent more than two decades in.
In 2008, Budke’s third season, as the Cowgirls braced to face No. 6 Oklahoma in front of the biggest women’s basketball crowd in Gallagher-Iba Arena history, Budke premiered a bright orange blazer. That night, OSU upset the Sooners 82-63.
“That orange jacket kind of summarizes how he became a Cowboy and an OSU person from the get-go,” Reece said. “I think people loved seeing him in that. I’ll never forget it. When I picture him, I see him that way, in that orange blazer, that bright orange blazer. He was proud to wear it.”
Soon, the orange jacket and Budke became synonymous.
The next season, Ford replaced Sean Sutton as the OSU men’s coach. In the same way OSU welcomed Budke, Budke extended a hand to Ford.
Their careers took similar arcs to OSU. They both began at small schools, Budke at Kansas City Community College and Ford at Campbellsville University. Even beyond the court, their families matched. Three children: two sons, one daughter.
In Budke, Ford saw a man and coach he wanted to be.
The 6-foot-4 Budke’s dominating physical presence was not something Ford, at 5-9, could imitate. Budke’s demeanor appealed to him most.
When it came to his team, Budke was in command of any situation. His players respected him because he respected them. He knew how to approach them and connect with them. Despite a resounding energy, he remained calm.
He and Ford had daily conversations about basketball. Ford doesn’t remember the last time they spoke. He only knows it was about the game they love.
They often attended each other’s practices. Ford sat in awe watching Budke work. The Cowgirls listened to Budke to improve as players. Ford listened to improve as a coach.
“I would actually check myself at times and say, ‘Man, that’s not how he would do it. … He’d be disappointed in me right now. I’m losing my mind over here,’” Ford said. “I wish I could do it like he did it.”
‘This just can’t be’
For Travis and Heather Ford, the phone call came at 4 a.m. Nov. 18, 2011.
Angela Iven, the Fords’ neighbor and wife of OSU team physician Val Gene Iven, got a call from her husband, who was in Iowa with OSU’s football team, telling her about the plane crash. After a 2001 plane crash killed 10 members of the Cowboy basketball family, Iven, even in her weary state, was stunned.
“I was asleep and just in disbelief,” she said. “This just couldn’t happen again to OSU.”
She called her neighbors, figuring they might know something given Ford’s position. Instead, she was the one who delivered the news of the four deaths.
“We thought there was some confusion,” Ford said. “‘Somebody’s got something wrong. This just can’t be.’”
Ford called Keiton Page, the Cowboys’ captain. Page was used to receiving early morning calls from his coach, but 4:30 a.m. was too early for even Ford.
Ford told Page to round up the players and head to Gallagher-Iba Arena. In speaking with team trainer Jake Manzelmann, Page learned what happened to Budke, Serna and the Branstetters. He prepared himself and notified his teammates of the conversation that was coming.
Page said he doesn’t remember Ford’s words once he gathered the team in its locker room, but he remembers the message.
“He had told us that we need to do everything in our power to be with our girls’ program and their families and the coaching staff,” Page said. “We just all tried to huddle around each other and be there for each other during that time.”
At 9 a.m., several miles east of Gallagher-Iba Arena, Iven visited the Budkes’ home. Friends of the family were there visiting Budke’s wife, Shelley, and their three children, Sara, Alex and Brett.
At some point, Ford was among them. He wanted to endlessly support the Budkes and the Cowgirls. He rented the Stillwater bowling alley for the men’s and women’s teams. Come Christmastime, Heather Ford put up trees in the locker rooms.
Ford, though, wanted to find a way to honor Budke. He strived to be more like him as a coach, a father and a person.
He thought of his favorite memories of Budke. Watching him spend time with his parents when they visited for games. Seeing him hug Shelley after a win. The moments he spent with his children.
“If there’s an example of how to enjoy college coaching, he would be it,” Ford said. “He just seemed to have it together and never seemed panicked, never seemed rattled. Great teacher, great motivator.
“There’s so many different visions, but it’s that orange jacket, probably.”
‘Playing for another purpose’
As the Cowboys’ first home Bedlam game after Budke’s death approached, an idea came to Ford.
He decided the best way to honor his friend was with the symbol that reflected him most: the orange blazer.
He needed to find one to wear first.
In the early 2000s, Bob Sherrer, then the president of the Tom James Company and an OSU alumnus, presented several OSU administrators with bright orange blazers. Reece was among those who received a blazer.
When Ford approached Reece about borrowing his jacket, Reece was supportive of the idea.
Ford kept the jacket hidden until minutes before tipoff. When he revealed it to the team, the Cowboys’ elders, like Page, understood its significance. Newcomers were told about Budke’s intertwined history with the blazer.
The Cowboys won Bedlam 72-65.
“It was almost like you were out playing for another purpose,” Page said.
Ford continued to bring out the blazer for Bedlam home games. It became an opportunity to teach his players about Budke, Serna and the Branstetters’ place in OSU history.
In later years, the message was more palpable. Budke’s name was already in the room.
Budke’s older son, Alex, walked onto the OSU men’s basketball team at Ford’s suggestion in 2012. Brett Budke joined the team as a manager in 2014.
“Man, that presence,” Ford said. “I didn’t do a good enough job telling them how much it meant that they were a part of it.”
Phil Forte, a fifth-year senior guard for the Cowboys, watched Ford don the blazer for four years. The meaning never dulled.
“That’s something that’s bigger than basketball,” Forte said. “That kind of stuff meant a lot to him, and he, I think, made us realize how much more important that stuff is. Like, this is a game. Basketball’s just a game, and stuff like that is so much more important.”
Ford figures he won’t do much, if anything, regarding the Four this year in his new position at Saint Louis, but that doesn’t mean he won’t remember. Only a phone call away, he keeps Shelley and the Budke children on his mind, especially as the anniversary approaches.
“They’re always a part of my life, and I’m here for them in any way possible,” Ford said. “I want them to know I’m thinking about them.”
Searching for the words
More often than not, one of Page’s postgame texts was from Budke.
The messages provided encouragement, reinforcement or congratulations, whatever Budke felt Page needed.
In Budke and Ford, he had two father figures.
When Page, now the Cowboys’ assistant director of player development, walked into the Cowboys’ emptying coaches’ locker room and saw a symbol of both hanging in Ford’s locker, he felt compelled.
With trash bags scattered around the room and other lockers not quite emptied out, Page took it.
The orange blazer sits in his closet.
Page and Reece have discussed the jacket. Page has thought it might be nice to give to Brett and Alex, who is now a graduate assistant for the Cowboys. Reece understands if it ends up with the Budkes, but he wouldn’t mind having it back; he wants to wear it for Bedlam games at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I’m proud of the way Travis handled it,” Reece said. “I’m proud of the fact that he wore that bright orange blazer in Kurt Budke’s honor.”
Reece and Page see similarities between the former OSU coaches. Their recruiting skills. Their basketball intelligence. Their passion for the game and for their players.
“Their alikes were easy to spot,” Page said.
Yet Ford is left with messages undelivered. He yearns to be better, trying to emulate a man he can no longer watch, a friend he can no longer see every day.
“That whole thing is just hard to explain, it really is,” Ford said. “It still messes with me. It still just …”
Ford pauses, a deep breath giving him time to search for the right words.
“He was such a good guy. Great guy. It’s still hard.”