CHICAGO (AP)—Lon Kruger has changed zip codes a few times, adapted to climate and cultural changes and savored a coaching journey that has landed him on a select list.
He’s one of only five Division I coaches to take four different programs to the NCAA tournament, joining Lefty Driesell, Jim Harrick, Rick Pitino and Eddie Sutton.
Kruger has taken Kansas State, Florida—which he took to the 1994 Final Four—Illinois and now UNLV to the NCAAs.
A victory over Georgia Tech on Friday was UNLV’s first in the NCAA tournament since 1991, so Kruger’s run of college success continues, despite the frequent change of addresses. The Runnin’ Rebels meet Wisconsin on Sunday in the second round of the Midwest Region.
“We could have stayed in one place for 20 years and obviously some people do that. We chose a different route,” Kruger said of his family that includes son Kevin, the Runnin’ Rebels’ starting point guard.
“Every stop along the way we’ve had great experiences, great relationships, great friendships. We realize you’re giving some things up when you do that, but there’s also a lot to be gained in making changes and meeting different people and being exposed to different parts of the country. It’s worked out well and we have no regrets about it.”
Kruger really made a change after his final season at Illinois in 2000 when he jumped to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and found winning a much more difficult proposition, going 69-122 in two seasons plus before he was fired.
Like John Calipari and Tim Floyd—college coaches who had great success at that level but not so much when they ventured into the NBA—Kruger got back into the college game. And after two 17-win seasons and a trip to the NIT in his first two years, he has UNLV at 29-6 headed into the meeting with second-seeded Wisconsin.
Kruger credits good players for his ability to win in so many different programs during 21 years of college coaching. His record is 381-266.
“You just have to be yourself. I don’t think you can be someone else for someone else, for the wrong reason,” he said.
“My only concern throughout this whole career is the players, whatever I can do to help them mature and develop, whatever I can do to protect them while they’re in a program, that’s my focus. … There are a lot of different ways to do it. There’s not one right away, one wrong way.”
Kevin Kruger wasn’t always crazy over leaving his friends and his home when dad said he was taking yet another job. Lon Kruger’s first head coaching job came at Texas-Pan American in 1982, a year before his son was born.
“The move to Atlanta was tough. I was in high school,” he said.
But looking back, it has worked out well—for all the Krugers.
“I’m glad I got to do that. I lived in Texas … I lived in the Midwest, South, North and Southwest for college,” said Kevin Kruger, who transferred to UNLV from Arizona State. “I got friends I feel all over the country and not a whole lot of kids get to do that.”
And not a whole lot of kids get to play for their dad. The father-son angle has been played heavily but neither seems to be weary of it. The physical resemblance is striking and the two Krugers even speak with the same inflections.
Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan coached two of his sons, one at Wisconsin-Platteville and another at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, though neither played as big a role in the teams’ success as Kevin Kruger.
“It was fun coaching them because I knew they were going to play hard, dive for loose balls and take charges,” Ryan said.
“All the things you’re asking your other players to do, your sons better be doing when they’re playing.”
What both Krugers hope Sunday is that Kevin shoots better than he has in the last two games. He was just 2-for-11 in the Runnin’ Rebels 78-70 victory over BYU in the finals of the Mountain West Conference tournament and shot 0-of-8 from the field in the 67-63 win over Georgia Tech.
Kruger’s shooting is just one worry. So are the sore ribs that leading scorer Wendell White got late in the victory over Georgia Tech.
Wisconsin (30-5) needed a big rally from an early 18-point deficit to beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 76-63 in the opening round Friday. The Badgers know they can’t afford a similarly slow start against the Runnin’ Rebels.
Kruger and Ryan are no strangers. They coached together during the 1995 World University games, helping the USA win a gold medal.
“Lon’s a lot of fun. We’ve traveled together. He’s a good guy. He understands what the world’s all about and what he wants out of basketball and life,” Ryan said.
“We never had him up on any stage in standup comedy or anything. .. But you know what? Inside he’s having fun.”