Lon Kruger was right man at right time for Sooner basketball

Nov 26, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lon Kruger reacts to a play against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 26, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lon Kruger reacts to a play against the Missouri Tigers during the first half at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports /

Lon Kruger almost didn’t come to Oklahoma.

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It took a lot of convincing by OU athletic director Joe Castiglione to lure him away from Las Vegas, where Kruger and his wife, Barbara, lived for seven years and really enjoyed it. UNLV was Kruger’s fifth stop as as a head coach in a college coaching career that has spanned 35 years

We’ll never know exactly what powers of persuasion Castiglione used — outside of money. of course, which couldn’t have been the tipping point because Kruger was already being paid well — to convince Kruger to pick up and make yet another coaching move. And on top of that, it was to a competitor of his alma mater, Kansas State, where he played and coached.

Whatever the motivation — and we can probably assume that a chance to return to his Midwest roots was a big part of it — Kruger took the Oklahoma job and ended up staying 10 seasons, longer than he had at any of the five other schools he had coached.

Kruger may not have been the No. 1 choice as Oklahoma was looking for a new head coach to replace Jeff Capel (there were rumors at the time that OU really wanted Buzz Williams, who was then the head coach at Marquette), but he was absolutely the right hire at the right time for a Sooner basketball program that was stumbling along in the final two seasons under Capel.

Kruger had moved around a lot as a college head coach, but he had been a winner everywhere he went. In 35 years as a college head coach, in only eight times did his teams finish below .500. He built a stellar reputation for his ability to rebuild and turnaround faltering programs, and that is exactly what Oklahoma needed when it brought Kruger in prior to the 2011-12 season.

Oklahoma was just 15-16 in Kruger’s inaugural season in Norman, but the Sooners won at least 20 games in each of the next four seasons, including a high of 29 in 2015-16 when they advanced to the team’s fifth Final Four in program history behind national player of the year Buddy Hield.

Kruger is fourth winningest head coach in OU basketball history

Kruger won 195 games at Oklahoma, the fourth most in OU basketball history and more than at any of his other coaching stops. It wasn’t just the wins that made Kruger so successful coaching at OU, it was the way he went about it, Castiglione said.

"“He did it with integrity, humility, class and grace,” the OU athletic director said. “He did it with superior leadership skills and a genuine kindness that included his constant encouragement of everyone around him.”"

And that’s just about the way everyone in the college basketball profession who know Kruger describe him, friend and foe alike.

Prior to the matchup with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, Zags coach Mark Few had this to say about Kruger’s character:

"“He’s a gentleman among all gentlemen. He really, really is a fabulous person, Few told The Oklahoman. “He obviously (has) shown himself to be an incredible coach. (He’s) handled all his success with an amazing amount of grace, a man of high character.”"

When the final buzzer sounded on Monday afternoon capping off an 87-71 NCAA Tournament win by Gonzaga over the Sooners, Sooner fans realized that it might be the last game for senior starters Austin Reaves and Brady Manek at OU, but no one suspected it would be Kruger’s, as well.

A phone call may have accelerated Kruger’s future plans

It wasn’t so much the retirement announcement itself, but the timing of the announcement that caught Sooner fans by surprise. With a coaching career that, when you include his three seasons as coach of the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA, spans more than 40 years, you knew that the 68-year-old Kruger might be contemplating calling it a game. After all, he has been at Oklahoma three years longer than he has at any other school.

The tipping point, however, may well have come on Sunday, when his son, Kevin, informed his dad in a phone call that he was the new head coach at UNLV. Kevin played at UNLV for one season when his dad was head coach. The Kruger family may still have a home in Las Vegas.

I think you may get the picture.

Not that you can’t have two college head coaches in the family, but Lon may have decided one was just fine and that it was the right time to pass the baton. Just like it was the right time to come to Oklahoma a decade ago.

The elder Kruger will always be known for his basketball accomplishments, both as a coach and player. He was a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year when he played at Kansas State from 1971-74. As a head coach, he was Coach of the Year in three different conferences, including twice in the SEC when he was at Florida.

But basketball isn’t the only sport Lon Kruger excelled at. He was a star baseball player at K-State and was drafted by both the Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals and played one season (1974) in the Cardinals’ minor league organization. Also in 1974, he was invited to the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp as a quarterback.

Kruger has built lifelong friendships and lasting impressions everywhere he has gone.  To see some of the outpouring of well wishes the outgoing Sooner head coach has received by clicking here.

Will Rogers, himself a native Oklahoman, said he never met a man he didn’t like. The same can be said in reverse about Lon Kruger. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever met or been around Kruger didn’t like him.

Sports columnist Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman has written a moving article on Kruger’s career and his time at Oklahoma. He ends the article with two simple sentences that I think succinctly sum up Kruger’s successful 10 seasons leading the Sooner men’s basketball program:

“Kruger’s work was done. And done well.”