OU could be Kruger's toughest rebuild
It started as a sort of friendly shooting competition, mentor versus student. Steve Henson was winding down a six-year career in the NBA and Lon Kruger, his former college coach at Kansas State, was sowing the seeds of success at Florida.
They'd play a game to 10, regroup and start over. After more than three hours and only two breaks -- one so Kruger could swap the socks he'd bloodied by playing through a blister -- they were still going at it.
Finally, mercifully, Kruger hit 10 shots in a row and they quit.
"That's coach Kruger," Henson said. "You might beat him in a sprint but never in a long race."
Ask people to describe Kruger and you might think they're talking about a favorite pair of slippers: dependable, solid, comfortable -- those are the words you'll hear repeatedly.
He has been in college basketball for 35 years, a head coach since he was 32. Yet in a game of characters, the 58-year-old remains one of the game's blankest slates.
He is that rarity in the game today, a person more than a personality. Kruger doesn't stalk the sidelines or charm at the press conferences. If he wears Armani, you aren't going to know about it.
Yet Kruger probably has more athletic ability in his pinkie than most of his peers, and his coaching résumé could stack up with the best of them.
So why doesn't everyone know everything about Lon Kruger?
Because that's the way he is.
"The way he was brought up, what he believes is you just do your job and try to outwork everybody else," Henson said. "It's who he is and who he's always been."
As a head coach, Kruger has resuscitated, rehabilitated or resurrected five programs -- Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV -- but his latest task could be his toughest.
In April, Oklahoma hired Kruger to pull its program out of a quagmire. The Sooners are a mess on the court, finishing only 27-36 in the two seasons since Blake Griffin left, and a potential disaster off of it. The NCAA is looking into a loan payment involving former Sooner Tiny Gallon. The case has stalled -- Gallon refuses to speak with the NCAA -- but the shadow of the investigation makes for a murky future and muddies things for potential recruits.
Kruger's squeaky-clean image -- he once famously told the Orlando Sentinel, "I've always hated cheaters. I've always wanted to beat them. It's such a great feeling to beat someone who takes an unfair advantage" -- certainly is big part of the attraction for Oklahoma. The Sooners don't just need a good coach. They need a coach beyond reproach.
And Kruger practically oozes his Midwest values, a straight-from-the-heartland hero who has traversed the country but stays tied to his Kansas roots.
"I think a lot of what we do goes back to my family and the principles I learned from my parents," Kruger said. "Their expectations, how we were raised, it's how I still think. All I ever knew growing up was to work hard so now, to win by taking shortcuts, that wouldn't be satisfying at all."
As vanilla as Kruger might be compared to his brethren, he remains something of a folk hero in Kansas. A three-sport stud out of tiny Silver Lake (population 1,400), he is cut out of the Americana cloth. His father was a mailman while his mother stayed home to raise six kids (five of them boys). Dad cut a base path in the field behind their house and Lon enjoyed a childhood and young adulthood that was borderline idyllic.
As a senior in high school, he averaged 23 points on the basketball court and threw for over 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns as a quarterback, and he was drafted by the Houston Astros (1970) and the St. Louis Cardinals (1974). Oh, he also was class valedictorian.
Kruger only endeared himself more when he chose to stay home for college, enrolling at Kansas State (just 40 miles from Silver Lake), where he became a two-time Big Eight player of the year in basketball and a four-year starter on the baseball team.
"He's one of those guys, if you played him in tennis, he'd never have an unforced error," Henson said. "In golf [Kruger has a 5 handicap], it's almost like he takes a half-swing. It's effortless. Everything he does is so simple and easy."
The same is true of Kruger's coaching style.
Save a short stay in the NBA, he has rebuilt and won everywhere he's been, from Texas-Pan American (from 7-20 his first season to 20-8 his fourth season) to his alma mater (81-46, four NCAA tournament berths) to Florida (NCAA probation to the Final Four) to Illinois (first Big Ten title in 14 years) to UNLV (from two NCAA tournaments in 15 years to four in the last five seasons).
Though tough and competitive, he is not a fire-and-brimstone sort of coach. Henson, who has been an assistant with Kruger since 2000, said Kruger starts each practice the same way -- by spending time with every player.
"I remember when I first joined him, practice was supposed to start at 1:45 and there he was talking to the point guard for two minutes and then the next guy and it's getting to be 1:50 and 1:55," Henson said. "But he does that almost daily with every guy, just so they know where they stand. One kid he might pump up a little bit, the next he might challenge. I remember when I was a player, he always challenged me, but he was always fair. I think that's important to these guys. They need to know where they stand."
That ability to relate to people has served Kruger as well as his coaching acumen. Virtually every job he took had passionate but somewhat disenfranchised fan bases. He made winning back fans equally important as winning games.
At UNLV, the Runnin' Rebels played in front of the biggest crowds since the Jerry Tarkanian days, and Kruger bridged the gap between the university and its controversial coach.
That it was the untarnished Kruger who extended the olive branch to Tarkanian, the perpetual thorn in the NCAA's side, may seem a delicious irony -- but it is entirely in keeping with Kruger's personality.
"I thought it was really nice and really important to do that with the ex-players," Tarkanian said of Kruger reaching out to the 1990 national championship team.. "He was great, great for the community, everything. He's a good person. I don't get into that other stuff [about being squeaky clean]. I just know he's a good person."
Kruger's ability to win the alumni function as well as the living room will serve him well at Oklahoma.
OU has had plenty of success on its basketball courts, but interest in the program ebbs and flows depending on where OU is in the football cycle. Two years ago, then-No. 5 Oklahoma played archrival Texas in January in the Lloyd Noble Center. Tickets remained available up until tip time.
Which is why Kruger has spent as much time ingratiating himself around campus as he has concentrating on his team. Kruger scheduled a meeting with the presidents of the university's fraternities and sororities and has announced that his practices will be open to both the public and the media.
"Any place in the country where the atmosphere is really good, the students are the cornerstone of that," Kruger said. "We need that here. We want to own that building, so I want students here to look forward to coming to games, to enjoy being with other students, and I want them to tell me how to make that happen."
If there has been any criticism of Kruger at all -- and it is tough to find any -- it's that he's a modern-day Larry Brown, a coach who has wanderlust in his eyes. His seven-year stay at Las Vegas ranks as his longest.
It's a strange twist for a man from such rooted beginnings, but one that Kruger doesn't entirely discount. He never intended to become an itinerant coach, but in three decades of coaching, he's discovered a few truths about himself.
A long-suffering Cubs fan, he admits he likes an underdog.
"And I guess I like challenges, too," he said.
Even ones that take three hours and a few bloody socks to win.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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