More Than Memories

Times Staff Writer

The accident report stated "no survivors," but that wasn't entirely true.

Two years after a plane crash that might have leveled the Oklahoma State basketball program for 10 years, three holdover seniors and their senior-citizen coach have the Cowboys poking their noses in what was supposed to have been somebody else's business.

Picked to finish sixth in the rugged Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma State finished fourth, clinched its sixth consecutive 20-victory season and, with a 21-9 record earned a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Cowboys will open Friday night against Ivy League champion Penn.

These Cowboys don't sit tall in the saddle, though. They have no post threat and boast no starter taller than 6 feet 8. They forged into contention with defense, tenacity and resolve.

Ready for March Madness?

"I think we're ready for life," senior forward Melvin Sanders said after a recent practice at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

It is with a degree of uneasiness that one tries to connect the dots from the loss of lives to basketball victories, yet the evidence suggests a correlation between pain and perseverance.

In fact, this season's surprising success seems to have been almost willed by Sanders, Victor Williams and Andre Williams, three seniors who saw too much too soon, and galvanized by Eddie Sutton, a veteran coach who has seen just about everything.

"Because of that, those guys became tougher people," Sutton said of his seniors. "They became men."

The "that" to which Sutton refers remains embedded in memory and memorials.

The summary facts have been recorded with the National Transportation Safety Board in detached, independent, cryptic detail:

"On January 27, 2001, about 1737 mountain standard time, a Raytheon (Beechcraft) Super King Air 200, N81PF, owned by North Bay Charter, LLC, and operated by Jet Express Services, crashed into rolling terrain near Strasburg, Colorado.... All 10 occupants aboard N81PF were killed, and the airplane was destroyed by impact forces and a postcrash fire."

The plane was one of three chartered by Oklahoma State for a return trip after a basketball game at Colorado.

Two made it back to Stillwater.

The NTSB ruled the probable cause of the plane crash was pilot error: " ... final 2 minutes of flight was consistent with a graveyard spiral resulting from pilot spatial disorientation ... winds variable at 4 knots, visibility 1 mile in light snow, sky obscured.... "

Killed were Oklahoma State players Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming, media relations coordinator Will Hancock, director of basketball operations Pat Noyes, trainer Brian Luinstra, play-by-play announcer Bill Teegins, student manager Jared Weiberg, broadcast engineer Kendall Durfey, pilot Denver Mills and co-pilot Bjorn Falistrom.

Twenty-five months have passed since the crash and, although no one has forgotten what happened, time has slogged on. There are more than 20 new faces in the athletic department and most players from 2001 have rotated out of the program.

Disconnection was inevitable.

A moving memorial to the deceased adorns a corner of Gallagher-Iba Arena -- a bronzed Cowboy squatting, head bowed, holding his hat with both hands.

Yet, Andre Williams knows when he and his senior teammates depart, another link will be lost.

"The people who actually knew them and played with them, who remember what they were like," Andre said. "It's kind of hard to think of that."

The seniors have dedicated themselves to making one last, over-the-top push to legacy -- their endowment to the program.

Newcomers to the program have no choice but to be swept along.

"We talk about the guys a lot," Andre Williams said of the crash victims. "You get to know them, being around us. It's always there as a motivator."

For Andre, Victor and Melvin, the word "adversity" has taken on new meaning. Before, it meant facing rowdy road crowds at Lubbock or Lawrence or Austin.

"Nothing on the court will ever compare to the adversity of dealing with a plane crash," Andre Williams said. "We could be down by 50 [points] and I feel we can always come back, because we've dealt with a lot."

No one would have been shocked had Oklahoma State basketball gone on extended "personal leave" in the aftermath of the crash. Remarkably, though, the program has endured, remained vibrant and competitive.

"When it first happened, I wasn't sure whether we could finish the season," Sutton said in his office, overlooking a snow-covered football field. "But we got some counseling, and we did a lot of talking with the players."

The first instinct was to recoil.

"Give up, throw in the towel, let's sulk over what just happened," guard Victor Williams said. "But as time went on, you kind of realized those guys were very special to us. They'd want us to keep playing, and want us to be in the top 10."

Oklahoma State finished 20-10 in 2000-01 and 23-9 last season, although the Cowboys were first-round losers both years in the NCAA tournament.

Sutton says this season's team is "one of the best three or four best defensive teams I've ever coached."

Victor Williams, a 5-10 guard, is the emotional leader.

Melvin Sanders, a 6-5 swing player, is a tenacious perimeter defender.

Andre Williams, a 6-8 forward, does a little bit of everything: score, rebound, defend, block shots -- "Whatever it takes."

This season, with less talent, the Cowboys expect more.

"We have more resolve to do things differently," Andre Williams said. "We don't want to get bounded out of the tournament, no 'One and done.' "

Hard Calls

Imagine the horror.

The night of the crash, Sutton retreated to his office, closed the door, took out his phone book, picked up the receiver and numbly began dialing.

"When we got back, and we knew the plane was down, and that nobody was alive, I had to call those parents, and those wives," he said.

It had to be Sutton?

"I thought it should be," he said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and I hope I never have to do anything like that again," he said.

Athletic Director Harry Birdwell says Sutton deserves the credit for keeping the team together.

"They looked for strength and found him," Birdwell said.

Sutton took some heat. Some questioned why some in the traveling party, including the head coach, flew in two jets, whereas the third plane was a propeller-driven craft.

"Everyone wanted to point the finger at him," Victor Williams said. "We saw how strong he was throughout the whole situation. If a guy who has been through that situation can battle through it, why can't we?"

Sutton has never been, by any stretch, what you would call a "softy." As old school coaches go, he's single-room A-framed, a man who played for, and extracted knowledge from, legendary Oklahoma State Coach Henry Iba.

Sutton turned 67 last Wednesday, has taken four schools to the NCAA tournament, coached his 1,000th game this season, overcame a forgettable stay at Kentucky before staging his own second act at his alma mater, Oklahoma State.

Since Sutton's return in 1990, the Cowboys have earned 12 postseason bids in 13 seasons.

He was hard-driven before the crash and is hard-driven now.

He invited an out-of-town reporter to a workout that ended with Sutton kicking his players out of the gym and ordering a night practice.

The point being, if you don't play defense for Sutton, you're coming back after supper.

"That's the way we've always played," he said. "We haven't changed anything."

But Sutton has changed; how could one not.

Since the crash, he says, "I love you," more often to his wife and three sons -- Scott, Steve and Sean.

And his players?

"I've always tried to coach them like they were our own children, but in some ways I've taken it a step further," Sutton said. "I have a greater appreciation for life. Anyone who was connected to the program changed."

Return to the Scene

In August 2001, Andre Williams represented the team for dedication of a memorial near the crash site.

He was closest to the two players, Lawson and Fleming. They had roomed together as freshmen.

"We had a blast that year and I never really got a chance to tell them," Williams said. "It was something I always figured I'd do later, when we got older.

"I know it sounds kind of sappy, telling people how much you feel about them, you take them for granted. You feel like you'll always have the time, after you graduate. But I've come to find you can't rely on youth."

Williams didn't know how he would handle a trip to the crash site and recalls standing in that field, stomach knotted, thinking the deaths made less sense to him than ever.

"Where the plane went down, it was nowhere, nothing," he said. "I thought they deserved a lot more than that. For 10 guys who meant so much to so many people to die in the middle of nowhere, I thought they deserved a lot more than that.

"It hurt me. It was just a field. There's a memorial there now, but I couldn't tell you the name of the town. Middle of nowhere. Kind of desolate almost. Just some grass. No trees, nothing."

Everything changed after the crash; the way people acted, treated each other and, as a corollary, the way athletes traveled.

The NTSB determined that the school's air transportation policy was not causal to the accident but ruled that Oklahoma State had not provided significant oversight. For example, there were no records on file regarding the pilots or the accident plane.

Oklahoma State has radically changed its travel policies.

Birdwell led the revamping in his former position as the university's vice president for business and external relations. He was shocked at how few of the major conference schools he spoke to had institutional safety policies.

"It was all accounting, how you get reimbursed," Birdwell said. "No one was looking at how you travel more safely."

Oklahoma State's new policy requires an independent aviation consultant. Also, the school no longer uses donated aircraft for team travel.

The new plan mandates more stringent maintenance and inspection policy of aircraft. It stipulates pilot judgment is no longer sufficient for travel in poor weather. Aircraft simply may not depart into hazardous weather conditions.

The revised policy requires that pilots and co-pilots meet requirements that exceed FAA minimums. The policy requires that drivers of vehicles transporting student athletes be certified and that 15-passenger vans transport no more than 10 passengers.

Birdwell says most student-athlete travel fatalities involve "vans, not aircraft or buses."

The school did not ban the use of propeller-driven aircraft such as the one involved in the Oklahoma State crash. "To say King Air or some other propeller airplane is inherently unsafe is absurd," Birdwell said. "What is critical is safety and certification."

Another athletic department official, however, said the basketball team has not used King Air equipment since the crash.

"People hear 'King Air,' and shiver," the official said.

The NTSB, in its final accident report, stated Oklahoma State's revised travel policy, adopted April 22, 2002, should be "a model policy for member institutions to use in creating a travel policy or strengthening an existing travel policy."

*

Death should never be diluted, nor the aftermath of a horrific accident reconciled because it led to travel policy reform.

Yet, in time, the pain can subside into a dull ache and, eventually, can reside in the recess of daily ritual.

Dealing with the tragedy becomes ...

"I don't know if you could say it's 'easier,' " Andre Williams said. "You can deal with it. You find understanding. That's life. People die. Not to be like cold and stuff, but from the moment you're born, you know you're going to die. You can't ever get used to someone dying at 20 or 21 years old, but you know it's something that happens. It's part of life. It doesn't really get easier. You just learn from it."

For three Oklahoma State seniors, you wonder what there is left to learn.

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