The Ten will live in OSU hearts forever
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 2, 2010.
It's Jan. 27, 2010, and Ron Franklin is calling the Texas A&M-Oklahoma State game on ESPN2. Franklin's voice is as steady and strong today as it was more than 40 years ago when his broadcasting career began. But when he begins to talk about the 2001 Oklahoma State plane crash that killed 10 members of the OSU family, his voice goes soft.
Cowboys everywhere, like Franklin on air, cry simultaneously.
We never forgot.
I remember exactly where I was when I got the call. My first professional team, Ural Great, had just beaten CSKA in Moscow the night before. Angie, my wife and fellow OSU alum, had traveled from Oklahoma to New York to Moscow, watched the game, eaten dinner, met the team at the airport and took an overnight flight to Perm, Russia.
The next morning, after landing at 5 a.m. and going straight to bed, I woke up around noon. Before shaking off the cobwebs, I shuffled into my kitchen to plug in my laptop and get the Oklahoma State score. The Pokes were playing surprisingly well despite losing seven seniors, including yours truly. The day after every game I would go to ESPN.com around noon (13-hour time difference) and check in on my boys. This was in the dial-up days, especially in Russia, and I was just about to take the plug out when the phone rang. My father told me to sit down.
It was Jan. 27, 2001. A date I will never forget.
Driving 25 hours from Southern California to "Stillwater, America" in my Chevy Blazer, I had no idea the life experiences I was about to undertake. During my visit to OSU, I had come in and out of town at night. So when I turned off I-35 and saw the "Stillwater 17 miles" sign, it was the first time I realized I was leaving everything I had previously known.
I was born in Milwaukee and raised in Orange County, Calif., but I grew up in Stillwater, Okla. I had baggage when I came to town, but Stillwater asks that you leave it, along with your ego, at the door before you come in. Ask former students and they all will light up in talking about the only Big 12 stop that does not have an airport to fly commercially out of. No mall, no frills. Just cold beer, pretty women, plenty of burgers and Cowboys basketball.
Some things around town have changed, though. In some ways Oklahoma State is different. In its determination to become a "football school," certain things were left behind. The cold, hard fact about Sean Sutton being fired at OSU is that there really is not anything that is similar to the Eddie Sutton era these days.
In fact, just about the only tie to the legendary coach -- my coach -- is Larry Reece, the PA announcer. Unlike the years when the team was run by the Suttons (who are both OSU alums), there are no former players on staff. Oklahoma State has always been somewhat unique in that so many of its coaches and athletic administrators were graduates of the school.
But hey, it is what is. Times change.
But the victims of the 2001 plane crash? They should never be forgotten. And for the most part, they aren't. The intentions of the new guard at OSU are good and they've made a genuine effort to keep the memory alive -- the tribute during last week's Texas A&M game was touching.
It can be tough, though, to convey the hurt that came from the tragedy to someone who wasn't on campus at the time. So many in the current athletic and academic administrations weren't around on Jan. 27, 2001. It's not their fault, of course, but the fact still remains.
For some, the years pass and the memory of The Ten drifts further and further out of the conscious mind. It's understandable. We move from one thing to the other and then do it all over again the next day. But for those of us who were closely associated with the people who perished, there are some memories that never go away.
No one wears orange ribbons anymore, but many of us still remember. There are, after all, things that can't be forgotten.
I remember former Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, who the previous season had closed the old Gallagher-Iba Arena with a triumphant win and stopped to rub it in at Eskimo Joe's, offering up one of the most touching gestures anyone can remember. Easily the most hated man in Stillwater up to that point, Sampson had his OU team come out to the shootaround in orange T-shirts that had the 10 names on the front.
I remember seeing a Russian newspaper with a picture of my teammate Desmond Mason winning the NBA slam dunk contest and pointing to the heavens.
Each time I stepped aboard a Russian Aeroflot plane, I remembered my friends and selfishly thought, "Am I wrong to think it means that it will never happen to me?" I'd land and breathe easier, then stop and feel guilty.
I remember the first time I really cried about the plane wreck. It was Dec. 24 of the same year, Christmas Eve 2001. I was on a bus with my Israeli team. Our wives traveled with us as we headed to Haifa in the northern part of the country. As I sat looking out the window at the Mediterranean Sea, Angie was a little homesick, as it was her first Christmas away from Oklahoma. Tears came as she mentioned 9/11 and how many others would never come home. I simply remembered The Ten.
It has been nine years since Oklahoma State's third plane went down, and there are still so many visions I have of the faces of the men who passed that cold Super Bowl weekend.
The plane was flown by Denver Mills. That was my favorite plane because rarely, if ever, were the coaches aboard. And since it was a bit slower than the jets that Coach Sutton took, there were usually no coaches at the airport when we landed in Stillwater. When you lose, it is better to be without coaches.
Two years prior to the crash, I can remember flying the exact same flight with Denver after a loss at Colorado. We had an 18-point lead at one point, but lost to CU in overtime. Jaquay Walls, later a second-round pick of the Pacers, had put up 40 on us. We had been a preseason top-10 team, but were struggling and losing leads to the bottom of the league, where the Buffs sat.
Yet on Denver's plane it did not matter. Snow fell outside and we played cards as he guided us home, never even thinking of another outcome. Denver was always teaching me about the plane and letting me sit in the cockpit on short flights (I was one of the few who could fit). I remember when the Vikings lost to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game the season before as we flew back from Lubbock. Denver let me give the safety instructions and the score on the microphone. He loved OSU basketball and I loved flying with him. I still remember the game of chess that saw Jason Keep beat Alex Webber in three moves, while we ate cookies Denver brought aboard his plane.
Nate Fleming was just a freshman walk-on the season before. A basketball and tennis player, Lil Nate came from good stock, though they all were Sooners. My roommate and teammate Rodney Sooter and I wanted him to move in with us in our three-bedroom apartment, but coach Sutton knew that Nate's academic prowess was good for the other young guys, so Nate stayed on campus with them.
Nate was famously naive and equally fearless. In fact, we nearly squared off in Syracuse the practice before the Sweet 16 game because Nate was always playing all-out and I had no juice left for a scrapper in practice. Nate became roommates with Fred Jonzen the next season. Fred was still a very good player, but he was never really the same after the crash. How could he be? Nate Fleming was a gem. I miss him very much.
Dan Lawson also passed in the crash. Dan had been a pride-filled sophomore the season before. He transferred in from junior college, but he was stuck behind several returning guards and eventually redshirted during my senior year. Dan had one amazing smile that he used to flash around the town. Despite his Michigan roots, his mild temper and laidback mentality meshed perfectly with Stillwater. He struggled in having to guard Desmond Mason every day in practice as Desmond took out all of his inner rage on Dan's defense and the rim.
I roomed with Dan several times that season, including our trip to Las Vegas. He confided in me that he did not want to dress and not play because it was too important for everyone back home to see him "make it." I saw him play extended minutes early that season before the crash and stopped him after the game to tell him, "Dan, call home, you made it." He was so proud of his own improvement. He was really tight with Victor Williams, who was also redshirting that season before taking over at the point after we all left. Vic and Dan were inseparable. I have no idea how Victor managed to play after the tragedy, but he did and he played well. But that is Vic -- a true fighter.
Jared Weiberg was a hack. His dad is one of the legendary JC coaches in Oklahoma, and Jared simply wanted to prove he belonged. The role of the walk-on for Eddie Sutton is almost undefined: You can get into every drill and play defense in most 5-on-5 scenarios, or you can rotate in and sit more often. Jared never sat and never took a play off.
He met me at the Colvin Center during the season to work on my shooting and my free throws. One time I looked at him and asked him why he, another player, was feeding me the ball. His reply was matter of fact: "This is what I am here to do -- become a coach and help you guys." I thanked him, but in all my basketball narcissism swore that would never be me. Jared never backed off the pedal, never apologized for his effort. Even when he fouled and nearly maimed a teammate, no one squared off with him -- we knew he was a bit slower, but not intentionally trying to hurt anyone. Jared was a manager at the time of the crash. I am sure his thoughts were on what he would have done differently during the game.
Pat Noyes was Oklahoma State basketball. Pat was little, funny and full of life. His off-campus house was the center for many a "guys' night" when he was a manager. Every recruit we brought in eventually made it to Pat's house, where we would eventually get them to commit. I remember a recruit calling his brother and telling him that he found a "home" and that he was coming to OSU. Pat made people feel that way. As the director of basketball operations, he was always catching grief about any and all of his travel arrangements. Pat and Sean Sutton were as close as brothers, and I'm not sure Sean really ever had the time to truly mourn his friend. And trust me, Pat Noyes was worth mourning.
Bill Teegins was our play-by-play man. Oklahoma State may not be North Carolina or UCLA, but Teegins was good enough to call games at the highest level and his "He Got It!" echoes in my mind. In a business in which men can lead dysfunctional lives, Bill was quite the opposite. Teegins encouraged me to go into broadcasting and even put me on television right after my career was over. Oklahoma is kind of a wellspring for athletic and broadcasting talent, yet anyone who has ever worked in the state has heard tales of how smooth and how classy Bill Teegins was. His wife, Janis, wrote a book entitled "He Got It! My Life with Bill Teegins." I hope Janis has found peace.
Will Hancock was the SID. His father, Bill, has run the NCAA tournament and written a book about his struggles in coping with the loss of Will. It is called "Riding with the Blue Moth." Will and I had a close relationship because, well, I liked to talk to the media and was pretty good at it and all the other guys thought it was better that way -- or at least that is how I saw it. Will set up the interviews and then told me when Coach was upset over what was written. Will was kind, funny and smart, and he loved basketball. His wife, Karen, had just had their daughter Andrea three months before the crash. Karen, a coach for the OSU women's soccer team, must still feel his presence at work.
We had a new trainer my senior year. Brian Luinstra was unbelievably sarcastic and must have been confident in his comic skills because he let us have it despite having just come to our school from Wichita State. His attitude was never down, despite a new job, two kids and a demanding team that was already kind of entrenched when he arrived. By the end of most seasons, your body is a mess. Brian knew it, felt it and would do us a "solid" by taking us out of three hours of court time and into his office instead for ice, stim and a massage.
Kendall Durfey was the engineer for the radio broadcast. Those guys never hopped in on the third-plane card games, but you knew they wanted to. Kendall was like the family member who was always around, and you knew something was missing when he wasn't there. OSU is a tight family and Stillwater is a small town. Kendall was one of us.
Bjorn Fahlstrom was another pilot who was tight with Denver. Depending on the length of the trip, Denver sometimes needed another hand. I believe I met Bjorn only once, but I am stung by his loss nonetheless.
Look, I know there are far greater overall tragedies in the world right now with tens of thousands of people lying dead in the streets of Haiti. I would never even attempt to compare this to numerous other awful events of the past nine years. But like many others, I do still feel it. The hurt is still real.
College basketball is a close-knit, dysfunctional family, and when you read about the lives that are lost in various tragedies, sometimes we see just names. There are no stories behind them. There are no faces.
So by writing this piece, I thought maybe I could give some meaning to those names after all these years.
I do not vouch for everyone I know. If you know me, you know that is not my style. But my friends are different, and these were my friends.
Within every college basketball team in America, there is a Pat Noyes. There are Nate Flemings and Will Hancocks and Dan Lawsons. And every program has a Bill Teegins, too.
So please remember them around this time of year, whether it be in your place of worship or during a quiet moment or just before you turn on some college hoops.
Please remember The Ten. Good men, good sons, good fathers, good friends.
Oklahoma State is a family, and this hasn't been easy for any of us. Especially not the man who used to be in charge.
Every time I look at my beloved coach I remember how he succumbed to his demons on that fateful day in 2006, and I get upset at the actions that led to his untimely retirement. But then I think of the 10 phone calls Coach Sutton had to make and I remember. I look at his aging frame, his proud smile, his Kansas-meets-Oklahoma drawl. As I look into his eyes, I see sadness and realize that he, too, remembers.
No true Cowboy could ever forget.
Doug Gottlieb is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a contributor to ESPN.com. "The Doug Gottlieb Show" can be heard weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNRadio.com.