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Thousands mourn Oklahoma State University coach killed in crash

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - More than 6,000 mourners gathered on Monday in Oklahoma to remember the head coach of the Oklahoma State University women's basketball team and three others who were killed last week in an Arkansas plane crash.

A familiar bright orange sport coat once worn by Coach Kurt Budke was draped over the back of an empty chair in Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, where he began rejuvenating the fortunes of the Cowgirls basketball program seven years ago.

Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna, and OSU boosters Olin and Paula Branstetter were killed last Thursday when the single-engine plane taking them to Arkansas on a recruiting trip crashed near Perryville, Arkansas. The cause of the crash was not known.

The memorial service was televised throughout the state and attended by Governor Mary Fallin, members of Congress, and the university's prime benefactor, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

Budke, 50, was remembered as a fierce competitor who compiled a 465-130 win-loss record during a coaching career that saw him rise from the junior college ranks in Kansas to taking OSU to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament.

"Every place he went there was success," said Jim Littell, who has been named Budke's interim successor.

Serna, 36, who served as Budke's recruiting coordinator, played college basketball before she became a coach. One of her former OSU players, Taylor Hardeman, told the mourners she was "a big sister" as much as a coach.

The Branstetter couple lived in Ponca City and were both experienced pilots, sometimes flying cancer patients for treatment at out-of-state hospitals. Olin Branstetter, 82, a former state senator, was piloting the single-engine Piper aircraft when it crashed, officials said.

The plane crash reminded many of a similar crash in 2001 when a small plane carrying two Oklahoma basketball players and eight others affiliated with the university's men's basketball program crashed in Colorado, killing everyone on board.

OSU President Burns Hargis told the gathering: "Any time lives are ended before their time it seems unfair. The holes in our hearts today are just as empty as those 10 years ago. Nothing ever fills them up. You never get over it. You just have to get through it."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)