NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma fans are well aware of the success Lon Kruger has enjoyed in the game of basketball, especially the job he's done in three years running OU's program. There's very little he hasn't achieved in his 28-year collegiate head coaching career, and he has the Sooners positioned for a promising 2014-15 season with the return of four starters from last year's 23-10 squad.
But with everything he has accomplished -- 537 career victories and being the only coach to lead five programs to the NCAA Tournament are chief among his list of on-court feats -- the 61-year-old Kruger has dedicated himself to helping defeat one more staunch opponent: cancer.
One of the nation's most heavily involved coaches in any sport when it comes to the fight against the devastating disease, Kruger is a longtime member of the 28-person Coaches vs. Cancer Council. The Coaches vs. Cancer program is a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). According to the Coaches vs. Cancer website, the initiative leverages the personal experiences, community leadership and professional excellence of coaches nationwide, and seeks to increase cancer awareness and promote healthy living among students, faculty and staff, fans and the community at large.
Coaches vs. Cancer began in the early 1990s due largely to the efforts of former University of Missouri head coach Norm Stewart, who was diagnosed with colon cancer after passing out on a 1989 team flight to Oklahoma prior to a game vs. the Sooners. Coaches throughout the country have worked hand in hand to raise approximately $90 million to help the American Cancer Society save lives by helping people stay well and get well, by finding cures and by fighting back against cancer.
The 61-year-old Kruger has done more than his fair share, and is anxious to do more. Coaches vs. Cancer holds a special meaning to him. In 1998, Kruger's father, Don, passed away after losing a battle with skin cancer.
While serving as the head coach at UNLV in 2007, Kruger had the vision of starting the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic. With the support of the university's administration, he reached out to the local American Cancer Society division and got the ball rolling for an event that has raised nearly $2 million in its first seven years. And the future of the event looks even brighter.
"It's a nasty disease," said Kruger. "Everyone's been touched by cancer, and anything we as coaches can do to help give back, certainly it's our pleasure to do that."
HOW THE EVENT BEGAN
Kruger said he hatched the idea for the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic in 2007. While a Coaches vs. Cancer tournament had been in place on the East Coast for several years, no such event was occurring on the West Coast, he explained.
|“ACS Presents: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic”|
Fox Sports takes you inside the Coaches vs. Cancer Golf Classic in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was founded and is chaired by OU's Lon Kruger. The 60-minute show debuted Friday, July 4, at 7 p.m. CT on FS Oklahoma and features roundtable discussions with some of the nation's elite coaches, the history of former Missouri Coach Norm Stewart's efforts, and ways for you to get involved in the fight.
Kruger is praised nationally for his extreme devotion to the Coaches vs. Cancer cause and for starting a Las Vegas version of the East Coast fundraiser, but he is quick to point to Stewart as the guy who planted the initial CVC seed.
Coaches vs. Cancer began as the "Three Point Attack ... Norm's Special Challenge" in the early 1990s, with fans donating money for every Missouri 3-pointer. The program was adopted by the NABC shortly thereafter and Coaches vs. Cancer has grown exponentially. To date, it has raised almost $90 million.
"Norm's inspired all of us," said Kruger. "His fight against cancer started all of this. The NABC selected Coaches vs. Cancer as its signature charity of choice and it all started with Norm's fight. Norm's doing a fantastic job and is still right in the middle of Coaches vs. Cancer."
Kruger also acknowledges other current coaches who have been participants in the Las Vegas Golf Classic since the first or second year of the event; guys like current Oregon head coach Dana Altman, Washburn’s Bob Chipman, South Carolina's Frank Martin, North Carolina's Roy Williams and Nebraska's Tim Miles, as well as Kansas State administrator Mike Clark.
The first year of the Classic raised $152,000 with 14 foursomes participating, said Kruger. Compare that to this year's 55 foursomes and net of $427,000, and the evolution of the event is obvious.
"It's grown every year," said Kruger, who was the 2012 recipient of the national Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award. "Now we play two courses both days. It happens because of so many people working to make it a great event. Nike was there from the start as a key partner, but the addition of MGM Grand as a partner and the work that (MGM Grand Hotel and Casino President) Scott Sibella has done really has put us over the top from the standpoint of covering our overhead so we can contribute more to the cause."
RECAPPING THE 2014 EVENT
The Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic has grown to be much more than a golf tournament, and this year's event attested to that. Sure, each of the more than 200 golfers got to play the breathtaking Shadow Creek Golf Course and the exclusive Southern Highlands Golf Club on consecutive days. But the fun continued back at the event headquarters of the MGM Grand.
Golfers and their guests gathered at the hotel's elegantly decorated Producers Pool for two nights of entertainment, including Sunday's "Party with a Purpose" and a "Bigger Monday Reception" the following evening. Monday's partygoers were treated to a performance by comedian Larry the Cable Guy and a private poolside concert by country music superstar, Oklahoma native and Sooner supporter Toby Keith.
A record number of basketball coaches took part in this year's event and were seen visiting with the many non-coach participants for hours at a time.
Joining Kruger in attendance were Oregon's Dana Altman, Michigan's John Beilein, Colorado's Tad Boyle, Washburn's Bob Chipman, Colorado State's Larry Eustachy, Bowling Green's Chris Jans, Utah's Larry Krystkowiak, Grand Canyon's Dan Majerle, South Carolina's Frank Martin, Creighton's Greg McDermott, Washburn's Ron McHenry (women's), Nebraska's Tim Miles, Northern Arizona's Jack Murphy, New Mexico's Craig Neal, UNLV's Dave Rice, South Dakota's Craig Smith, Texas Tech's Tubby Smith, Stephen F. Austin's Brad Underwood, Kansas State's Bruce Weber and North Carolina's Roy Williams.
DANA ALTMAN – OREGON HEAD COACH
"Like almost everyone here, cancer has touched our family quite a bit. Coach Kruger's a good friend and has been a mentor for a long time. When he started this seven years ago he gave me a call and I've been here every year since. It's a great tournament, very well run.”
JOHN BEILEIN – MICHIGAN HEAD COACH
"Coaches vs. Cancer has become huge. There's so much great involvement from all the coaches at all levels now; not just the highest levels. There are high schools that are doing this now. So I just want to be a part of it. I have a little history of cancer in my family and so you want to help in any way you can."
LARRY KRYSTKOWIAK – UTAH HEAD COACH
"It touches me pretty close to home. I just find it a blessing to be a coach at a major university and be able to be one of THE coaches vs. cancer."
FRANK MARTIN – SOUTH CAROLINA HEAD COACH
"I remember when (Coach Kruger) called me seven years ago. Because of his ties to Kansas State and with me being at Kansas State it was a natural fit. I was the only coach here that wasn't a part of the old Mountain West (Conference) when (the event) started. To think that seven years later that it's as big as it’s gotten, it's a credit to Coach Kruger and that group of people that he's got around him. They put on such a great event that has become so popular. And the other part of it is, this is to fight cancer. All of us coaches are united and we're going to keep chasing cancer until we figure out a way to get it."
TUBBY SMITH – TEXAS TECH HEAD COACH
"He's been successful wherever he's been. That's why you partner with someone like Coach Kruger and other coaches. You know they're winners and we're going to fight until the very end to eradicate cancer."
ROY WILLIAMS – NORTH CAROLINA HEAD COACH
"I think it's great. I think everybody is here because they realize we're trying to fight a very, very significant battle. We're trying to beat an extremely difficult opponent in cancer. But every day that we raise a little more money, we help some scientists and medical people get closer to finding a cure. Also, you bring more awareness to it and get more people involved. Lon Kruger does such a great and is one of the true gentlemen in our coaching profession. So we come out here because Lon asks us to and because it's the greatest cause we can have."
Also participating this year were former OU basketball coach Billy Tubbs and current assistant coaches Chris Crutchfield, Steve Henson and Lew Hill. Current OU football head coach Bob Stoops and assistant coaches Mike Stoops and Bobby Jack Wright were also on hand supporting the effort.
Previous attendees have included ex-professional sports stars Rollie Fingers, Greg Maddux, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Bill Russell and Roger Clemens.
THE FUTURE OF THE EVENT
The 2015 Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic has already been scheduled for May 17-19. The MGM Grand Hotel and Casino will again serve as the host property, and golfers will again play the pristine Shadow Creek and Southern Highlands courses.
At a price of $12,000 per golf foursome, those interested in signing up should contact Rochelle Jurani of the Great West Division of the American Cancer Society at (702) 891-9021. Slots are expected to fill up fast.
Kruger said the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic is primed for even more growth, which of course means more dollars for the fight against cancer.
"We think it's got great potential to keep growing," said Kruger. "This next year we'll keep it at two golf courses, but down the road we may need to expand it. People love going to Vegas and everyone's been touched by cancer, so they love contributing to that fight. They like mingling with the coaches, and the coaches do a great job of being accessible and meeting people. And then you consider that we're at a first-class place like MGM Grand and the whole event is just first class."
While Kruger credits Sibella for his work with the event, Sibella is quick to reciprocate.
"Coach and I started talking about this a few years ago, and our goal is to make this better and better and better every single year," said the MGM Grand president. "We've done a pretty good job of that. He's just so committed and cares so much about this charity that it just made so much sense that we could partner up and make this a better event every year."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you want to support Coaches vs. Cancer but are not able to attend the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic, you can contact your local American Cancer Society division or donate online at www.coachesvscancer.org.
Lin MacMaster, chief revenue marketing and communications officer for the American Cancer Society, explained at this year's Las Vegas Golf Classic how funding helps the fight against cancer.
"The mission of the American Cancer Society is fundamentally to end cancer and to bring it to a manageable chronic disease, hopefully in our lifetime; and then also to obviously end the suffering that goes along with cancer,” said MacMaster. “We do that by doing prevention, care, cure and advocacy. Those four key pillars are important to end cancer in our lifetime."
Kruger said his fellow coaches have done an outstanding job of raising money, but also awareness.
"The sincerity with which the coaches around the country have taken ownership of Coaches vs. Cancer is just fantastic," said Kruger. "Whether it's a bowl-a-thon, a breakfast, or a luncheon or a golf event, hundreds of coaches are doing a great job and we just appreciate the opportunity to be a part of that. As fun as our golf event is, nobody loses sight of the fact that it's a fight and everyone is contributing. It's about raising dollars to help beat this nasty disease."
A victory over cancer would rate as Kruger's most gratifying triumph to date. And there wouldn’t be a close second.
Written by: Mike Houck