MARSHALL - With Southwest Minnesota State men's head basketball coach Brad Bigler recovering from a two-vehicle crash in Pope County on Saturday, the SMSU basketball team is staying strong in support of its head coach.
On Sunday morning, about 12 hours after a head-on collision outside Starbuck killed five-month-old Drake Bigler and hospitalized Brad Bigler with broken ribs and a broken shoulder blade, Mustang players Jordan Miller and Tramel Barnes received word on Brad's condition and made the trip from Marshall to Avera Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. Both Barnes and Miller said they spoke to Brad and Heather Bigler, Brad's wife, for over 45 minutes.
"It's one of those things that's hard to deal with because he's like a father figure to all of us," Miller said. "We've all been with him for so long, it's hard to see something like that."
Miller added, "It's taking time for us to realize he's really lucky to be alive."
On Monday, SMSU Director of Athletics Chris Hmielewski said Bigler's condition had improved from Sunday, and the Mustangs' head coach was soon to be fitted for a shoulder brace.
When Miller and Barnes met up with the Biglers on Sunday, they saw a family who were handling the tragedy the best they could.
"Jordan and I were joking with coach and he was laughing a little bit," Barnes said. "It's kind of tough when you're in that situation when something that drastic would happen. A lot of people would be out of it."
This is the second time in a year the Bigler family has experienced tragedy. In June 2011, Brad's mother, Diane Bigler-Hagenow, died in a kayaking accident near Sacred Heart.
"Coach is handling it like I knew he could," Barnes said. "He's one of the strongest guys I've ever met in my life. He's been through a lot and he keeps trucking through it."
Even through the pain of the collision, SMSU Assistant Coach Brooks McKowen said Bigler was in good spirits, even laughing while in obvious pain.
"If you know Coach Bigler, his personality is he's kind of a jokester," McKowen said. "This is really hard what they're going through. But he was cracking jokes the whole time, even though it looked like it hurt to tell some of them. Their spirits are as good as they can be."
While Bigler recovers, McKowen and current SMSU graduate assistant coach and recently-named Marshall High School basketball coach Travis Carroll will shoulder the load.
"Right now is not necessarily a busy time for us. We just gone down with some recruiting, watching games, stuff like that," McKowen said. "And staying in contact with guys we're recruiting, that kind of stuff will fall on Travis and I right now.
"But like I told him the other day," McKowen added, "he doesn't need to be thinking about that at all. This is a time where he and his family need to be together. And he needs to recover physically as much as anything else. We'll take care of that stuff and we'll get through it."
Barnes and Miller have kept in contact with other members of the Mustang basketball team, and Barnes said the players have kept a high level of optimism that Brad Bigler has a full recovery.
"We're all pretty happy he just has the injuries that he did have, which are still pretty serious, but not anything really life-threatening," Barnes said.
Since news broke of the accident, both players and coaches have received an outpouring of support for their head coach and his family.
"I've had near 100 people on Facebook and Twitter. Support here at Southwest is so strong right now for the Biglers," Barnes said. "People have extended out and given as much support as they can in this crucial time."
McKowen added, "Coach Bigler, the way he is, he's got so many friends in this business. I can't tell you how many other coaches in the business have called and asked how he's doing. A lot of that speaks to the way he presents himself, on and off the court."