By Doug Feinberg
A quick-thinking coach averted what could have been a terrible bus accident for the University of Dubuque women’s basketball team.
The Division III team from Iowa was driving back from a tournament in Nashville, Tennessee, on Sunday morning. About 90 minutes into the trip, assistant coach Justin Smith was jolted from his seat when the bus hit a guard rail on Interstate 24 in Kentucky.
The driver had passed out, with the bus going 70 mph. Smith leapt into action, hitting the brakes and stopping the bus. Apart from the driver, everyone on the bus was OK.
“We’re still a little in shock,” Smith told The Associated Press by phone Monday. “I’m just thankful everyone’s OK. … I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The actual initial accident and me jumping out and grabbing the wheel felt like three seconds.”
After stopping the bus, Smith and the other coaches got the bus out of harm’s way. It was still on the highway and could have been hit from behind.
“We didn’t feel safe where it was at and we had the girls move up to the front of the bus,” he said. “I sprinted about 100 yards behind the bus to get traffic away from the bus and make sure there were no other accidents.”
Smith is a first-year assistant and no stranger to bus trips.
“I’ve been a high school coach and had a lot of late nights on yellow school buses,” he said. “For some reason, always had in the back of my mind, what if the bus driver fell asleep. It’s fight or flight mechanism and 99 percent of the people would have done the exact same thing.”
Emergency personnel arrived. The driver was conscious and taken to Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Kentucky.
“We were amazed by those guard rails and that’s what we were running over,” head coach Mark Noll said. “We ran over a bunch of them. The bus had its fair share of damage, not the point you’d think it would have. But if those things weren’t there we would have been going into oncoming traffic and we would be having a very different conversation right now.”
This is an unnerving time for Noll. Later Sunday night, he received a phone call and was told about one of his former players when he was an assistant at Wisconsin-Stout. Amanda Geissler died in a plane crash in Costa Rica .
Smith said the team was supposed to leave later Sunday morning, but the driver had told him and Noll that he wasn’t feeling well the last few days. So the team moved the departure time up an hour to 7:45 a.m.
“You never know what would have happened had we left a little bit later,” Smith said.
The team has 22 players, including 19 freshmen and sophomores. Most of them were at the back of the bus. The coaches said the players didn’t really know what happened, thinking the bus might have hit a deer or something else.
“The girls didn’t recognize the severity of it right away,” Smith said. “When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old you feel invincible and that’s a good thing they can bounce back from. We had a good practice (Monday) and had a good film session.”
The University of Dubuque plays rival Loras College on Wednesday.
“It does put things in perspective big time,” Noll said. “We’re playing a game and trying to achieve great things as a team and the adversity of what we went through yesterday makes us come that much closer together.”