The University of the Southwest’s golf teams were making the kind of drive familiar to athletes at plenty of small colleges — aboard a passenger van around sunset and after a day of competition — on Tuesday night when a pickup rumbled into view.
The truck, the Texas authorities said Wednesday, soon struck the bus on the rural road, a tragedy that left nine people dead, including the university’s golf coach and six of his players. The wreck was among the worst accidents involving sports teams in recent years.
“The U.S.W. campus community is shocked and saddened today as we mourn the loss of members of our university family,” the university, a nondenominational Christian school in Hobbs, N.M., said in a statement.
The university did not identify any of the victims by name, but it said its coach was among the people who had died in the wreck along a two-lane road near a larger highway in West Texas. A university spokeswoman said the only people aboard the bus were the coach, Tyler James, and students.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which is investigating the wreck along with the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a statement on Wednesday that the truck had veered into the lane that the team van was traversing “for unknown reasons” just after 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday. State officials said both vehicles erupted into flames, and that the driver and lone passenger in the pickup also had died. The authorities did not immediately release their identities.
Two students were also in critical condition on Wednesday, officials said, after they were flown to Lubbock, Texas, by helicopter.
The golf teams had traveled to Texas, where many of their players had gone to high school, to compete in a collegiate tournament in Midland. The crash happened in nearby Andrews County, and tournament organizers said Wednesday that the remainder of the two-day, 11-school competition had been canceled.
James was new to the university, hired just last summer as coach after he had worked at other Christian universities and at a high school about 120 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
The U.S.W. sports program, which is a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, is a part of the undergraduate experience for many of its hundreds of students, according to federal records. It is like many small athletic programs that exist more as providers of extracurricular activities than as financial engines; between July 2019 and June 2020, it pulled in about $3.8 million, less than the base salaries for many of the country’s most famous college football coaches.
The university, though, is not the first small school to face horror involving one of its traveling athletic teams. In 2007, members of Bluffton University’s baseball team were asleep when their bus plunged from a highway overpass in Atlanta; five players, as well as the bus driver and his wife, died. Seven years later, four North Central Texas College softball players died in a wreck on Interstate 35.
In 2018, 16 people died in Canada after a bus carrying a junior hockey team from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, collided with a tractor-trailer near the intersection of two highways.