With 33 minutes left on the clock before the start of Kansas State’s Sweet 16 showdown against Michigan State Thursday evening, Jerome Tang was in the bowels of Madison Square Garden dialing a phone number of a stranger.
The K-State coach had never talked to Warren and Julie Koehn before he spoke with them minutes before the biggest win of his life as a head coach to offer his condolences for the loss of their daughter, Lillyan, a 19-year-old Wichita native and K-State student who tragically died in a car accident on March 10.
But in a way, the Koehn family said, they weren’t strangers at all because of the connection from their shared Christian faith.
“It was a personal phone call that was meant to be from one believer to another believer,” Julie Koehn said. “He didn’t do it for it to become public, so if anything comes from this, we would want it to be a beautiful example of how Christians not only treat each other, but how Christians treat other people.”
Lillyan, who graduated from Maize High School last spring, was an active member and middle school leader at Pathway Church in Wichita. Her faith was her foundation in life, which is why she immediately took a liking to Tang.
Since arriving in Manhattan, the first-year K-State coach has openly talked about his faith and the role religion plays in how he lives his everyday life. Lillyan always rooted for the Wildcats, but she was even a bigger fan of Tang in particular.
“They shared a faith in God, which drove them to love people and engage with people, even those who believed differently,” the Koehn family said in a statement. “To know that coach Tang was thinking of loving others and reaching out to hurting people like us, mere minutes before he took his team onto the floor for that Sweet 16 game, just speaks to the power of the body of Christ.
“He touched us, not because he is a great coach and a public figure, but because he has his priorities straight. His prayers for us along with so many others in our wonderful community are sustaining us.”
Tang was asked about the phone call on Friday at the podium in New York City ahead of K-State’s Elite Eight game against Florida Atlantic and said the story stuck with him because of the experiences in his own family.
“My older brother passed away about 14 years ago and my mom told me that was the worst pain someone could ever experience is burying your child,” Tang said. “It just stuck, I just remember that. Anytime I talk to my mom and my brother comes up, it’s like she’s about to cry. Like she can still feel the pain.”
Tang said after he heard the news, he went to Lillyan’s sorority on campus, Alpha Chi Omega, and ate dinner with her sorority sisters to try to ease their pain.
But Lillyan’s story still resonated with Tang in the days since. So much so that he felt compelled to dig up a message with the phone number to her parents and call them to let them know he was praying for them and he was dedicating K-State’s performance on Thursday in Lillyan’s honor.
Kansas State won a 98-93 overtime game against Michigan State in what many considered the best game of this year’s NCAA tournament.
“It was either sit there and be nervous and think about all of the things that could go wrong in the game,” Tang told The Eagle. “Or I can do something really productive and maybe give somebody a little joy in their life.
“There’s this great saying, ‘Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.’ If I’m aware of something I can do, something to help one, I might not be able to do it for everybody, but I’m still going to try to do it.”
The Wichita soccer and Maize communities have been in mourning since the loss. Lillyan was a lifelong soccer player who played during club season for Wichita United FC for 13 years and then in high school for Maize.
A scholarship fund has been established in Lillyan’s honor at Maize Career Academy.
“Lillyan has been an important and vibrant member of our soccer family since 2010,” Wichita United FC wrote on Facebook. “Her passion for the game was unparalleled. She was a pillar in our soccer community.”
“Lilly was simply a beautiful and wonderful person,” Maize soccer coach Jay Holmes told The Eagle. “She was a competitor on the soccer field, always had a heart for others and a love for God. It was an honor to coach her and get to know her and her family during their time at Maize High. She will be missed by so many in our community.”
The Koehn family has been devastated losing their daughter, who they called “Lillybug,” but hope Tang’s act of kindness can be a lesson to others.
“We hope that as people hear the story they will recognize that God’s love is powerful and heals the brokenhearted, through His spirit and also through the prayers, words and actions of fellow believers,” the Koehn family said in a statement. “Our entire community has enveloped us with support and love and although it doesn’t ‘fix’ anything and return our daughter and sister to us, it has been a balm to our shattered hearts. We are forever coach Tang fans, no matter wins or losses. We know that our Lilly will be screaming for her Wildcats from the best seat in the house.”
Tang of course wants to lead K-State to its first Final Four since 1964 on Saturday night, but experiences like the one he had with the Koehn family mean more to him than a banner will.
“Wins and losses, people are going to forget about that stuff,” Tang told The Eagle. “I don’t think people ever forget about how you make them feel.”