Final Four weekend 2015 is one Dan Muller would love to forget, but he chooses to remember. The Illinois State head basketball coach lost one of his best friends and the Redbird program lost an assistant coach, assistant athletic director and valued supporters of the program.
Flying back from the Final Four in Indianapolis, coach Torrey Ward, Deputy Athletic Director Aaron Leetch and five others were killed when their small airplane crashed just a few miles from home. Muller calls it the worst day of his life.
Ward was an assistant on Muller's staff from the beginning of their tenure at ISU. Muller trusted him, and his players leaned on the wisdom he provided. Muller's ‘hardest day' didn't get much better very quickly.
As coaches and basketball teams do, they marched on, but not without a limp.
"That limp doesn't go away," said Muller. "People forget but we never will. Torrey was one of my very best friends."
Redbird players bravely played the next season. Muller says they tried to quietly honor Ward often in 2015-16 in ‘behind the scenes' kinds of ways.
But it was difficult.
"For a lot of our players, Torrey was ‘their guy'," Muller shared. "When things get tough, you look for ‘your guy' to help you through and he just wasn't there. Our other coaches did a great job of filling in, but that loss was really felt."
The Redbirds struggled in the early season. Their non-conference schedule included San Diego State, Maryland, TCU and Kentucky. While competitive, they dropped each of those games and after an early December loss to UAB their record stood at 3 and 6.
The young ISU squad was athletic enough to compete, but lacked experience and ‘their guy'.
Muller began to make lineup changes. Point guard Paris Lee was dropped from the starting lineup. Sophomore MiKyle Macintosh and senior Justin McCloud were given more playing time, and defense and rebounding began to be more important.
"It wasn't so much that Paris was playing poorly, or that any one player was struggling more than others," said Muller. "We just needed a change."
Lee quickly worked his way back into the lineup and the Redbirds had a highly successful Missouri Valley Conference season. Lee worked his way on to the Valley's ‘all defensive' team, and he and McIntosh earned honorable mention status in the MVC's all conference team.
ISU's 12-6 record was good for a tie for second place and Muller says he was filled with confidence heading into ‘Arch Madness' (the Valley's postseason tournament). Included in their 12 conference victories were wins over Northern Iowa and conference champion Wichita State.
"And we laid an egg," he said. "I couldn't be more disappointed in the way we finished. I'm not disappointed in the players, just that our season came to such a sudden end."
Illinois State basketball and Muller will never ‘get past' the loss of Ward, Leetch and the others, but they have moved on. They have added some highly touted players to this year's nucleus of senior guards Lee and Tony Wills, and junior forwards McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins.
Muller believes all four veterans have the potential to be ‘all conference' type players and many believe ISU will be the greatest obstacle to Wichita State's next Missouri Valley Conference title.
The fifth year coach says the loss of his best friend was the worst day of his life, but the Redbird family is learning to cope.
"You have to move on in life," said Muller. "But we're going to keep their families involved (in the program). Torrey's family is extremely close to us and that will last forever. Torrey was my right hand guy, a guy I loved and a guy I could trust with everything. Thankfully we had many friends that helped us through the toughest year imaginable."
Muller carries the memory of his dear friend with him every day and stays in consistent communication with Ward's wife and children. Torrey Ward won't soon be forgotten at Illinois State and his impact on the program could be felt well into the future, especially considering what Illinois State could be set up for next season.