With more than 500 career collegiate victories and as the only Division I coach to ever take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament, Lon Kruger has been leaving his trademark rebuilding stamp on college basketball programs as a head coach for 28 years. In fact, he is perhaps the greatest change agent in the sport’s history.
Now beginning his fourth season at the University of Oklahoma, Kruger’s reconstruction job with the Sooners has occurred faster than even some of the program’s most ardent fans imagined possible.
After inheriting a program that went 27-36 (.429) in the two seasons prior to his arrival, Kruger has coached the Sooners to a 58-38 (.604) record in his three years in Norman. Over the last two campaigns, OU has posted a 43-22 (.662) mark and advanced to the NCAA Tournament both seasons. The Sooners had not been to the postseason since 2009 when they advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight.
Oklahoma is the fifth school Kruger has taken to the Big Dance. His collegiate teams have made postseason appearances in 19 of the last 24 years, and he has the storied OU program positioned for another long run of success.
Kruger’s effective communication and teaching skills with his players aren’t the only reasons for the Sooners’ quick reascension on the ladder of hoops relevancy. He has also taken a lead role in the program’s community outreach efforts, positively impacting the lives of local residents and reinforcing the favorable manner in which they view the OU program.
Despite his relative newcomer status in the state, Kruger, who was named the Sooners’ 14th head coach on April 1, 2011, arrived in Norman already armed with first-hand awareness of OU’s rich basketball history from an opponents’ perspective. As both a player and coach at conference foe Kansas State, Kruger had many battles against the tradition-laden Sooners.
Kruger, a native of Silver Lake, Kan., acknowledged that location was also a factor in his decision to accept the offer to coach the Sooners.
"My wife, Barb, and I have lived in a lot of places, but we were raised in middle America and that has always been home for us," he said. "We never knew if the opportunity would present itself to get back there, but it did in this case, and it came at a great university."
What makes Kruger’s more-than-500 career wins and NCAA Tournament trips with five different programs even more impressive than they might first seem is the condition of the programs when they hired him and the rebuilding jobs he faced at each. In the year before his arrival as head coach at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma, the schools combined for a 78-99 record (.441). Kruger’s teams went a combined 92-89 (.508) in his first year at those schools, 117-72 (.619) in his second year, 114-74 (.606) in his third year and 115-49 (.697) in his fourth season. He directed all six programs to 20-win campaigns and took each of the last five to the NCAA Tournament or NIT by his second year. Not only has Kruger taken Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament, he has guided each to at least two appearances in college basketball’s marquee event.
Immediately prior to coming to Norman, Kruger compiled a stout 161-71 (.694) record in his seven years at UNLV. He coached the Runnin’ Rebels to the NCAA Tournament four of his last five seasons after the program appeared in only two of the previous 15 tournaments, and also helped achieve UNLV’s first national ranking since 1992-93. Over his final five seasons in Las Vegas, Kruger’s teams posted a .743 winning percentage (127-44) and averaged 25.4 victories. His 2006-07 squad won 30 games and advanced to the Sweet 16.
He took over a UNLV program in 2004 that had gone through a period of significant instability with nine different head coaches in the previous 13 seasons. Over that span, UNLV made just two NCAA Tournament appearances, both first-round exits.
The success of the program during Kruger’s tenure was reflected in the crowds in Las Vegas. UNLV’s 2009-10 attendance numbers at the Thomas & Mack Center were the largest since Jerry Tarkanian’s final season (1991-92), and the Runnin’ Rebels were No. 18 overall in attendance and No. 1 on the West Coast.
Kruger’s overall college mark stands at 537-342 with 19 postseason appearances in 28 years. He owns a 14-15 record in NCAA Tournament games and is 8-7 all-time in opening-round contests. He has also compiled 14 20-plus-win seasons, including seven in the last eight years.
Kruger, 62, began his head coaching career in the 1982-83 season at Texas-Pan American, where he compiled a four-year mark of 52-59, including a 20-8 record in the final season.
From there he left for his alma mater of Kansas State where he was 81-46 (.638) in four seasons. Each of his K-State squads qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and the 1988 team was one of the best in the school’s history with 24 wins and a trip to the Elite Eight.
Kruger then moved to Florida where he led the Gators to a 104-80 (.565) mark with an appearance in the 1994 Final Four. After six years in Gainesville, he went to Illinois for a four-year run with the Illini. His teams were 81-48 (.628) with three NCAA Tournament appearances.
As a player, the native of Silver Lake, Kan., helped lead the Wildcats to back-to-back Big Eight Conference titles in 1972 and 1973. After being touted as the Big Eight Sophomore of the Year in 1972, he was honored as the league’s player of the year in 1973 and 1974. He ranks 19th on the school’s career scoring list with 1,063 career points and has the fourth best career free throw percentage (.826) in school history. As a senior, he averaged 17.6 points per game and ranks in the top 20 on the school’s career scoring average list with a 13.3 points-per-game average. His best single-game scoring total was 37 points vs. Colorado as a senior.
Kruger was selected to the all-time All-Big Eight Team (third team) and was named "Mr. Hustle" all-time in the Big Eight. An Academic All-American as a senior, he also earned All-Big Eight academic honors two times and was the first player to capture Kansas State’s coveted Porky Morgan Most Inspirational Player Award three times. On Feb. 8, 2006, Kruger was honored during a halftime ceremony at a Kansas State game by having his No. 12 jersey retired.
He was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the ninth round of the 1974 NBA Draft. He also starred on the baseball diamond for Kansas State and was drafted by the Houston Astros in 1970 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1974. During his Wildcat baseball career he posted his best season in 1971 when he went 4-3 as a pitcher (3-1 in Big Eight games) and had an earned run average of 3.33. He struck out 38 and walked 14 in 46 innings. An all-around athlete, Kruger even got some football notice after graduating from KSU when the Dallas Cowboys invited him to their 1974 rookie camp as a quarterback.
A prep standout at Silver Lake High School, Kruger lettered all four years in football, basketball and baseball. As a senior, he averaged 23 points per game in leading his team to the state basketball tournament, passed for 2,079 yards and 23 touchdowns in nine football games and led the baseball team to the state tournament as a pitcher/infielder. In 2006, Kruger was honored by being inducted into the Topeka and Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class.
Born on Aug. 19, 1952, Kruger graduated from Kansas State in 1975 with a degree in business and earned his master’s degree in physical education from Pittsburg State in 1977. He and his wife, Barbara, have two children: daughter Angie, who is a medical school graduate from the University of Florida and who practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and son Kevin, who graduated from Arizona State University and played at UNLV for his senior season, starting at point guard for his father’s 2006-07 squad. Kevin, an OU graduate assistant at OU in 2013-14 and now an assistant coach at Northern Arizona, played professionally overseas and with the NBA Development League’s Utah Flash. Angie was married to Mike Ciklin in the fall of 2008. The couple had their first child, a daughter named Avery, in August 2012 and they live in Coral Gables, Fla.
Kruger has been involved in a host of charities, especially the Coaches vs. Cancer program that is sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He was instrumental in starting the Coaches vs. Cancer’s Las Vegas Classic, which has raised more than $2 million over the last seven years to benefit research, education and treatment programs for the American Cancer Society. In 2012, he received the national Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award for his work with the organization.
While at Florida, the Krugers were honored with consecutive Community Service Awards from the Gainesville Community Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, and in 1995 Lon was named the Gainesville (Fla.) Volunteer of the Year. From 1991-93, the couple served as co-chairpersons of Alachua County’s Red Ribbon Campaign, a week-long program aimed at increasing awareness and promoting a drug-free environment.
During the Krugers’ stay in Atlanta, Barbara was also involved in charity work, especially with "My House," a transitional home for children 1 to 3 years old.
In Las Vegas, she was on the board of directors for Safe Nest, a domestic violence shelter, was a member of the Las Vegas Paradise Sertoma Club, which provides educational scholarships for the deaf, and is also a sustaining member of the Junior League. Additionally, she is involved with PEO Sisterhood. The Krugers also spent time helping the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
Coach Kruger was involved with many causes in Las Vegas and assisted, among others, the NCI and the ACS, the Clark County School District, Southern Nevada Health District with childhood obesity, the City of Las Vegas recreation and youth sports, the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
In 2008, Kruger released his first book, "The Xs & Os of Success: A Playbook for Leaders in Business & Life." The book, which highlights the parallels between coaching a sports team and leading others in non-sports settings, consists of 40, five-minute lessons conducive to leadership, life and teamwork. It uses sports as a way to tell the story and a way to make things tangible. All proceeds earned by Kruger from the book are being donated to the Clark County School District’s School-Community Partnership.