NORMAL — Dan Muller leaned into the microphone Wednesday morning. The Illinois State men’s head basketball coach had words swirling in his head as a news conference got underway.
Only a few came out.
“It’s hard to make it through this being able to talk,” he said.
Tears flowed from Muller’s eyes. About 45 seconds passed. He could not muster another syllable. It was emotion … raw emotion for Muller, Director of Athletics Larry Lyons and senior basketball player John Jones at the Hancock Stadium Club.
They were there to discuss the deaths of seven people in a plane crash early Tuesday near Bloomington, including men’s basketball associate head coach Torrey Ward and Deputy Director of Athletics/External Operations Aaron Leetch.
It wasn’t easy.
“It’s a bumpy road,” Lyons said, his eyes welled with tears. “I reflect on the fall … volleyball, soccer, football. Men’s basketball went to the NIT, so the winter was pretty good, too. It’s just a high. Then Monday, Tuesday … such a low.
“You do the best you can to support everybody. We love them, we’re going to miss them. But you have to move on. We played baseball yesterday. We played softball yesterday. Football has (spring) practice this week. You have to continue to move on to support their memories and their legacies.”
Also killed in the crash just east of Bloomington were local businessmen and ISU supporters Terry Stralow, Andy Butler, Jason Jones and Scott Bittner as well as pilot Tom Hileman.
“Yesterday was the hardest day of my life,” Muller said later. “I lost a lot of good friends. They were such good people.”
Lyons said ISU athletics has received support from the campus, the community and from “every athletic department across the country.”
Those who died leave “a large void in our community and our Redbird family," he said, adding “Everybody is touched by this tragedy. They will all be missed.”
Lyons choked up repeatedly while discussing Leetch, who worked at ISU from 2005 to 2011, spent two years as athletic director at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., and returned to ISU in 2013 shortly after Lyons became athletic director.
“The first call I made ...,” Lyons said through tears. “The first call I made two years ago was to ask Aaron to come back. He had a tremendous gift to reach out, to develop and to nurture relationships.
“You need good people in college athletics. You needed him in this business. It’s incredibly big shoes to fill.”
Muller worked closely with Leetch, too. Leetch was the department’s primary contact for men’s basketball.
“When Aaron was coming back, they told me how great he was … great to work with, great to work for,” Muller said. “They undersold his greatness.”
Lyons saw Ward captivate a room of donors on numerous occasions. Ward would represent the coaching staff prior to a game and when he walked in the room, “people would shut up and pay attention,” Lyons said.
“He would give a little scouting report, take a couple of jabs at people in the room and then say, ‘Let’s go win one for the ’Birds,’” Lyons said. “He was on a path to be a head coach. He had that skill set.”
Muller agreed, calling Ward “awesome.”
“He could do anything,” Muller said. “He could talk to anybody. He could recruit anywhere in the country. He could help any kid. He truly cared.”
That’s what makes his loss so difficult, Jones said.
“I know tears aren’t coming out of my eyes, but I’m bawling inside,” he said. “I’m bawling inside.”