• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

How Lon Kruger's long odyssey led him back to the Final Four

In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

HOUSTON – Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione pulled up to a new house in Las Vegas in the spring of 2011 to make a major recruiting pitch.

It wasn't so much to Lon Kruger, coach of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels.

It was more to Kruger's wife, Barb.

Lon Kruger is in his fifth season coaching Oklahoma. (AP)
Lon Kruger is in his fifth season coaching Oklahoma. (AP)

"Joe came into our home and I was still unpacking boxes in our dream home we'd just built from the ground up," Barb Kruger recalled. "We designed it with an architect. It had everything we wanted."

And now Castiglione's job was to convince her to leave the dream home before she'd even settled in. He wanted the Krugers to come to Oklahoma, so Lon could perform one more rebuilding job in a career full of them.

Lon had already told Castiglione no on the phone – the discussion never got to the point where he told Barb about it. But Castiglione persisted, and pushed for the face-to-face meeting – he knew Kruger was the right guy for a program that had veered off course and into NCAA trouble under Jeff Capel. Finally, Lon started to listen – but he knew he had a tough sell at home.

Barb's initial reaction when Lon told her he was considering the job: "Are you kidding?"

He wasn't kidding. And that's how Castiglione came to Vegas to try and pry the Krugers away from a place they'd come to love over seven successful years – his longest stay anywhere in a 33-year head-coaching career.

It still didn't work. Kruger called Castiglione the next day and said he couldn't do it.

"You're messing with a persistent guy," Castiglione responded. "Let's talk some more."

Finally, Castiglione persuaded Kruger to leave the 2011 Final Four in Houston – how's that for karma – and visit with Oklahoma president David Boren and some members of the school's board of regents. By now, the move was starting to crystallize.

"The more we talked about it," Barb Kruger said, "the more we realized it was a great opportunity."

The meeting finalized the deal, and the boxes in the dream house stayed packed. Five years ago Friday, Kruger told UNLV he was leaving for Oklahoma. It was time for one more move.

Lon Kruger was on the podium here at NRG Stadium Thursday, saying nothing as usual. His fifth Oklahoma team has made it to the Final Four. Kruger was perfectly pleasant and agreeable, as he is without fail – but he provided virtually nothing in the way of a sound bite, as he does without fail.

He's spent a coaching lifetime that way. Some of LonSpeak is simply his nature – he is averse to first-person singular pronouns, and sometimes avoids pronouns of all kinds. But some of LonSpeak is calculated.

"How's that for sitting up there for 20 minutes and not saying anything?'' Kruger once told the Orlando Sentinel after an NCAA tourney news conference. "The trick is to defuse, not infuse.''

The last time Kruger was defusing a Final Four was in 1994. He was 41 years old and had worked a thorough and impressive rebuilding job at Florida. The Gators were a No. 3 seed in the 1994 NCAA tournament, took out No. 2 Connecticut and caught a break when No. 9 Boston College stunned a loaded No. 1 seed, North Carolina.

This was a team with one future NBA player, journeyman Andrew DeClercq. The rest was a collection of guys who toured the CBA and played overseas at best. As Final Four teams go, there wasn't much talent – but darned if Florida didn't lead Duke and Grant Hill during the second half of that national semifinal in Charlotte before falling by five.

"We were lucky," Hill said. "We were able to make a few plays after we were down to win the game. Coach Kruger had a great team. … He's moved around, but he's always had a set of expectations for his players and held them to it. He's taken that to Oklahoma and quickly given them a chance to win a championship. He's one of the great coaches who has not won a championship."

The surprising thing is that it's been 22 years for a coach of Kruger's caliber to make a second Final Four. In 1994, this looked like something that would become routine. Instead, it's the second-longest gap between Final Fours in college basketball history, trailing only Ray Meyer's 36-year gulf.

Lon Kruger is at the Final Four for the first time since taking Florida there in 1994. (AP)
Lon Kruger is at the Final Four for the first time since taking Florida there in 1994. (AP)

Meyer did all his work at one school, DePaul. Kruger has been a vagabond, now in his seventh head-coaching job. Which probably explains the long gaps between Final Fours, as he's flitted between stops in search of the perfect fit.

"In each case, we liked where we were," Barb Kruger said. "It was never a situation where we weren't happy. At every place, there was a challenge there and an opportunity to impact young people. He's always embraced those challenges.

Said Lon: "Never really planned on moving job to job. Enjoyed every stop. Never thought about a next job."

The career arc started humbly: Kruger's first head-coaching job was at Texas-Pan American, a small school in Corpus Christi. He was just 29 when he got the job, and the Krugers' second child, Kevin, was born there. In four years Pan Am went from a 20-loss season to 20 wins.

That put him in position to succeed his college coach, Kansas State legend Jack Hartman. Kruger, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year at K-State who grew up on a farm in Silver Lake, Kan., was the ideal replacement.

"It's home," said Barb, who met Lon when they were students at K-State. "He made a couple real good runs. Great memories."

The best run was in 1988, when a team led by future NBA standout Mitch Richmond reached the regional final before falling to eventual national champion and archrival Kansas. The next two seasons there were declining returns, and then Kruger shocked a lot of people by leaving home after four seasons for scandal-ridden Florida.

"There were a lot of things to weigh," Barb said. "But you have to look down the road, and that was a good move all the way around."

Kruger was the less-celebrated of two major Florida hires in 1990 – the other being Steve Spurrier as football coach. While Spurrier hogged the headlines, Kruger quietly gave the Gators what they desperately needed: someone capable of cleaning up the basketball program's reputation.

"He was hired to clean up a mess," said Chris Harry, who covered Kruger for the Tampa Tribune and now works for Gatorzone.com. "And it was a home-run hire times five. He was told to clean this place up, and he did that. He gets all the credit in the world for that. To go to a Final Four on top of that was a bonus."

But the expected program boost from that Final Four run never came. Kruger's recruiting never took off.

The biggest blow came in 1995, when Kruger's all-out efforts to get superstar recruit Vince Carter from Daytona Beach to stay in his home state failed. When Carter signed with North Carolina, the program lost out on the guy who could have helped sustain the success. After a 12-16 year in 1995-96, Kruger started looking around again – and wound up at Illinois.

Lon Kruger (right) and Buddy Hield are trying to deliver Oklahoma its first men's national title. (AP)
Lon Kruger (right) and Buddy Hield are trying to deliver Oklahoma its first men's national title. (AP)

Kruger had three 20-win seasons in four years, winning the Big Ten championship in 1998, and advanced to the NCAA round of 32 each time. The last time, in 2000, the Illini were eliminated by Kruger's former school and the guy who replaced him, Florida and Billy Donovan.

Kruger was never able to crack the recruiting code in Chicago. Kruger had success recruiting downstate Illinois, but couldn't land the big names from the Windy City. It was the Florida situation all over again.

This time the next job was in the NBA – the one time Kruger made a demonstrably bad move. He was fired by the Atlanta Hawks on the day after Christmas 2003, with a 69-122 record. This level of basketball clearly was all business.

"I missed the fight songs," Barb Kruger said. "It's crazy, but it's part of what makes college basketball special. The NBA fans are supportive of their teams, but there's not the same passion."

Lon said: "Getting fired was kind of humbling in a healthy way."

It certainly provided evidence that Kruger belonged in college ball. He went back there to UNLV in 2004-05, providing some stability for a program that had been adrift for years since the Jerry Tarkanian Era. By Year Three, Kruger had a 30-win team that advanced to the Sweet 16, and it included son Kevin as a starting guard.

The Rebels won 20 games every season thereafter. Kruger was popular and entrenched. It was time to build the dream house.

And then along came Joe Castiglione. He had tried to hire Kruger years earlier, to replace Kelvin Sampson when Sampson left for Indiana, and couldn't get him interested.

This time, Castiglione would not be denied – Kruger had the clean rep he wanted for a program coming out of NCAA sanctions, and he knew how to get a team to the NCAA tournament. And the Krugers have come to love it. They're close to their Kansas roots, and part of a program that has a passionate fan base.

"If you're a Sooner, you're a Sooner," Barb Kruger said. "They stand up and want to be counted. If you have the crimson and cream on, you're proud of it. It's very, very cool."

So is the Kruger farm outside of Norman. Barb had to give up her dream home in Las Vegas, but she's loving her current digs.

"I have my horse in the backyard," Barb said, referring to a quarter horse she rides. They have three other horses stabled on the property, one of them a retired racehorse.

And Lon has plenty of acres to mow on his John Deere. That's his way of relaxing and unplugging – a perfectly bland release for a bland man. After years of chasing the right job all over the country, Lon Kruger found home on his seventh stop.

More Final Four coverage: