March 19, 2018 11:30:38 AM
STARKVILLE -- Jim Littell has enjoyed the journey.
These days, there aren't very many coaches who have worked at nearly every level of their sport and have climbed to the top of the profession.
There are even fewer who have risen to that height following a tragedy like the one that hit the Oklahoma State women's basketball program.
On Nov. 18, 2011, OSU women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna died in a plane crash that also claimed the life of former Oklahoma state Sen. Olin Branstetter, the pilot, and his wife, Paula. The plane went down in Perry County, Arkansas, and happened 10 months after the 10-year anniversary of the deaths of 10 men affiliated with OSU's men's basketball program.
The crash occurred days after Budke, 50, had opened his seventh season as head coach at OSU with a 96-60 victory against Rice in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Littell, who is in his seventh season as head coach after moving from associate head coach to head coach following Budke's death, said he thinks about the man he called his "best friend" every day.
"We dated back to the 80s, and I coached his wife. He was the best man in my wedding," Littell said. "His legacy is a great basketball coach that was highly successful that cared about young people, but his best legacy was as a husband, a son, and as a dad. He was a man who had his priorities in order. He based our whole program around faith, family, education, basketball. That is the way he lived his life."
Littell has followed those tenets in his time as OSU's head coach. He has guided the program to six 20-plus win seasons in his tenure. At 8 tonight, he will try to lead No. 9 seed Oklahoma State (21-10) past No. 1 Mississippi State (33-1) in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Humphrey Coliseum.
The winner of that game will advance to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Missouri, to take on No. 4 seed North Carolina State (26-8), which beat No. 5 seed Maryland 74-60 on Sunday. The two Sweet 16 games will be Friday at times to be determined.
Littell started his coaching career in 1978 at Oxford (Kansas) High School. He led the team to a 94-14 record and a Kansas Class 2A State championship in 1981. From there, Littell worked as head coach at Friends University, an NAIA, school, and then as an assistant men's basketball coach at Cameron University (Okla.), a Division II school.
Littell returned to the prep ranks in 1990-91 to coach at Garden Plains High, where he posted a 21-3 mark, before he went 418-61 in 14 years as head coach at Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas. He earned nine conference titles and nine conference coach of the years honors. The 2001 Women's Basketball Coaches Association National Coach of the Year was inducted to the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2009.
Littell worked at Seward County C.C. until 2005, when Budke hired him as an associate head coach. The Cowgirls went 6-22 that first season, but they haven't had a losing season since, and have won at least 17 games every season.
"I think I have paid my dues to get where I am today," Littell said. "I wouldn't change one thing out of it. I loved being a 2A high school. My children were all born in Liberal, Kansas, and we had 14 great years at Seward County and we had something there that was very special and we were very proud of. Then I had an opportunity to come with coach Budke as an assistant. I have been very blessed in my journey. It's not a traditional way to get to be a Division I coach, but the man above always has a plan for you, and I have been blessed with my family and every place I have been able to coach. Oklahoma State is home, and I am surrounded by good people every day there."
Littell said he has tried to be his "own man" in how he has coached the team following Budke's death. OSU associate head coach Bill Annan said many of the qualities Budke instilled in the program remain strong because Littell and Budke were so close.
"They were truly like brothers," Annan said. "It was fun to sit back and watch just because they worked so well together. They knew each other's strengths and played off of those so well. The best stories I have is when we were getting ready to play somebody and how they would game plan and prepare for a team. It was really kind of fun to watch because how they would put it together and coach Budke would then take it to the court.
"You're talking about two people who knew each other way before that time, battled against each other every once in a while, and put numerous junior college teams and players on the map because of who they were and what they did."
Annan knew Littell and Budke for a long time from his days as a high school basketball coach in the state of Kansas. He said it was a joy to get to work with Budke. Annan said he could never re-pay Budke or his family for the chance to coach at the Division I level.
Annan said he enjoyed watching Littell and Budke work together because they had fun in what can be a stressful occupation and they both scaled the coaching ladder to get to the highest level. He said both men relished the competitive nature of their jobs and wanted to make the most of their opportunities at the highest level.
"Coach Littell was probably more of the bad cop and coach Budke was more of the good cop and they kind of shared that really well," Annan said. "When one had to go, he would do his job and the other one would come back and he would do his job. The balance of that also was something of an artful display because the players kind of knew that as well. They would get coached up pretty hard and (the coaches) would come back with 'but we love you and we need to have you be really good for us.' It was kind of fun to watch that, too."
Annan said Littell uses the 2011 plane crash to stress the importance of enjoying the journey because something can be taken away so quickly. As a result, Annan said Littell everyone associated with the program to approach every day with a brighter outlook and to cherish the time and the opportunities to impact the lives of those around them.
"You have got to be who you are in this business," Annan said, "but the foundation was there. From there, coach Littell has taken that to another level in a very positive way, but he is putting his own spin on that. It still carries the same foundation because coach is huge on family, and he tells every one of our players and the players he recruits that family is first and that is always how it is going to be. Faith in each other, faith in God, understand your religion, and be proud of that, and down the way a little bit is basketball. That's important, too, but he preaches that sometimes we can lose our priorities a little bit and it is important to keep those the way they should be."
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Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.