A piece of Gary Blair’s heart will always remain in Stillwater.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 18, 2011, Oklahoma State received a phone call that brought grief and haunted memories back to Gallagher-Iba Arena. Women’s basketball head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna were flying with Cowboy alumni Olin and Paula Branstetter on a recruiting trip to Arkansas when their plane crashed, killing all aboard.
Texas A&M women’s basketball head coach Gary Blair vividly remembers getting the phone call with the news, and from that moment on, his life was changed forever.
“When Kurt went down, and Miranda, it wasn’t only Oklahoma State that was hurt. It was college athletics,” Blair said. “Each of us puts ourselves in harm’s way many times, and we have to start reflecting back and start thinking of the things that could happen to each one of us.”
Blair and Budke’s paths first crossed in 2005, when Budke was named the head coach at OSU. Blair remembers how things were back then, when he coached what he said was the worst team in the league the year before and the Cowgirls were in the same shoes as his Aggies when Budke took over.
It was those program similarities and frustrations between OSU and Texas A&M that sparked a lasting friendship between Blair and Budke.
“We used to hold each other’s hands on the journey that both of us had to go through,” Blair said. “Both of us started part of our career at Louisiana Tech, so both of us working under coach (Leon) Barmore, we had been trained right.”
After those initial years, both the Aggies and Cowgirls started to excel. A&M would go on to have seven consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins and a national title, and OSU would have four 20 or more win seasons, three WNIT appearances and three NCAA runs including a Sweet 16 birth in the NCAA tournament.
But through it all, Budke and Blair remained close friends, with the same topic coming up every time the two spoke.
“He was so proud of his kids. When we would be on a recruiting trip, he would be there and he would talk about his son playing and his daughter and everything like that,” Blair said. “And it was just so refreshing because too many times as coaches, we put our families second. We say that they’re first, but too many times our family comes second.
“There’s too many ballgames that you miss or too many graduations or too many first dates that you need to be there as a dad and you’re not there, and your spouse has to handle all that,” Blair said, crediting the way Budke’s widow, Shelley, has handled herself and her family and saying how special she is.
Blair always looked forward to seeing Budke and getting to catch up with each other’s lives and families. Whenever the Aggies made the trip to Stillwater, Blair would sneak away from his team’s dinner at Joeseppi’s and walk next door to Mexico Joe’s just so he could be waited on by Budke’s daughter, Sara.
When recalling the moment he heard about the crash, Blair’s face had a look of patriarchal strength that one would expect from a father of two with two grandchildren. The look in his eyes, however, betrayed the façade and showed the pain and hurt from losing one of his best friends.
Blair attended the memorial service in Gallagher-Iba Arena and was joined by the University of Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey in showing support for a fallen member of the basketball community. Blair remembered how difficult it was to fight the grief he was feeling, but after then-interim coach Jim Littell made his speech, he knew the Cowgirls would be in good hands.
“Oklahoma State could not have made it through (last) season if Jim Littell had not been there,” Blair said. “It takes a strong, strong person to be able to do what he did. His speech at the memorial was unbelievable. There’s no way I could have done that.”
Blair said the events of that crash eerily mirrored those from 2001, when a plane carrying ten members of the OSU men’s basketball team crashed in Colorado, killing all on board. He admired the way the Stillwater and Oklahoma State communities were able to fight through both tragedies.
“I don’t know how you go through that two times in a 12-year period. I mean, it affects so many different people,” Blair said. “You live with that the rest of your life. Jim held them together.
“Littell was the perfect fit because Kurt and him were best friends, in each other’s weddings, and they know exactly what they each would have done if it would have happened to the other.”
When Blair thinks about Budke, he’ll think about Shelley, the powerful wife and mother who held the broken pieces of her family’s life together through unimaginable tragedy.
He’ll think of Sara, Alex and Brett, the three children whom Budke talked about so fondly and frequently.
He’ll think about Stillwater and all those meals at Mexico Joe’s.
Lastly, he’ll think about Gallagher-Iba Arena, where the fans loudly cheer for the Cowgirls during the game and welcome his Aggies after.
It was the place Blair earned his first college win as a head coach and where he could look at the other end of the scorers table and see Kurt Budke, a man he adored and admired, with that warm familiar smile on his face coaching a team that he loved with all his heart.
“He was my best friend in the coaching ranks in the Big 12 because we could talk so openly and honestly just about life and our families. I was doing a commuter marriage, which I still am, and he was trying to build a program,” Blair said. “Well, he built that program.”