The Newest Branches of the Kruger Coaching Tree

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to

Imagine the awkwardness of trying to win a game in a no-win situation. That’s how the 2018-19 season will commence for Oklahoma men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger.

For the first time since 1938, the Sooners will open the season with two true road games outside state lines. Eighty years ago, OU played its first two games under Hall of Fame coach Bruce Drake with back-to-back contests at Colorado.

"(I borrow) what I learned as a player and every day with him. Not just the X’s and O’s and the basketball part, but watching coach on a daily basis, how he treated people, how he always has the big picture in mind, how he always tries to do the right thing."
- UTSA Head Coach Steve Henson

This season’s out-of-state openers will be played at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg on Friday at 7:30 p.m., followed by a contest at the University of Texas-San Antonio on Monday at 7 p.m.

Not coincidentally, UTRGV and UTSA are coached by former longtime Kruger assistants Lew Hill and Steve Henson, respectively. In fact, their hirings two seasons ago directly led to this scenario.

Kruger is no stranger to the process.

“Generally, when they (assistant coaches) are applying for jobs, the ADs (athletic directors) will typically ask, ‘Hey, if we hire your guy, will you come play us?’ And I say, ‘Of course.’ We’re trying to help them get a job,” Kruger explained. “It’s kind of a given part of it. We understand that and we’re delighted to be doing it for them (Hill and Henson).”

Kruger’s graciousness aside, this puts him in a no-win situation. He either beats two of his former assistants, or worse yet, he doesn’t.

“You’ve got two games that you’ve got to try to win. Otherwise, it’s a bad deal,” Kruger said, forcing a chuckle. “You’ve got to figure out a way to win.”

Henson played for Kruger at Kansas State (1986-90) then later served as his assistant at Illinois (1999-2000), the NBA Atlanta Hawks (2001-03), UNLV (2004-11) and OU (2011-16).

Lew Hill

The Sooners open the season on Friday at UTRGV, home of former OU assistant Lew Hill.

Hill was a Kruger assistant at UNLV (2004-11) and OU (2011-16).

Henson and Hill are two branches of Kruger’s ever-growing coaching tree that includes notables such as San Antonio Spurs general manager and two-time NBA Executive of the Year R.C. Buford (who served as an assistant under Kruger at Florida in 1993-94).

Other branches represent NBA Portland Trail Blazers head coach and former OU forward Terry Stotts (Hawks 2002-03), Oregon head coach Dana Altman (Kansas State 1986-89), SMU head coach Tim Jankovich (Texas-Pan American 1983-84; KSU 1984-86), Nevada head coach Eric Musselman (Hawks 2000-02), UNLV head coach Marvin Menzies (UNLV 2004-05), Florida A&M head coach Robert McCollum (KSU, Florida and Illinois) and Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon (UNLV 2004-06).

The Kruger Coaching Tree
Head Coach Current Team Under Kruger
Dana Altman Oregon K-State, '86-89
R.C. Buford San Antonio Spurs (G.M.) Florida, '93-94
Steven Henson UTSA Illinois, '99-00; UNLV, '04-11; OU, '11-16
Lew Hill UTRGV UNLV, '04-11; OU, '11-16
Tim Jankovich SMU UTPA, '83-84; K-State, '84-86
Robert McCollum Florida A&M K-State, '90; Florida, '91-96; Illinois, '96-00
Marvin Menzies UNLV UNLV, '04-05
Eric Musselman Nevada Atlanta Hawks, '00-02
Todd Simon Southern Utah UNLV, '04-05
Terry Stotts Portland Trail Blazers Atlanta Hawks, '02-03

“We’ve had a bunch of guys doing well,” Kruger modestly acknowledged. “That’s great to see.”

Kruger tried to explain the difficulty in coaching against former assistants.

“In this case, we’ve been together so long and know their families so well,” Kruger said of Henson and Hill. “It’s good to see them, good to spend some time with them, but when the game starts, it’s certainly a bittersweet ending. You want to win and if you do, you still feel a little bit bad for the guy on the other end. So that makes it a little bit awkward.”

The arrangements to face UTRGV and UTSA are both 2-for-1 deals, with two games to be played at Lloyd Noble Center and one on the road. UTSA lost 97-85 to the Sooners in Norman last season.

Friday’s game will be a homecoming for Kruger. UTRGV (which merged campuses and created its name change in 2015) previously went by the name Texas-Pan American, which is where Kruger got his first head-coaching job.

Kruger remembers well the difficulty in trying to piece together a non-conference home schedule for the Pan American program that had finished 5-20 the season prior to his arrival. Kruger’s 20-8 (.714) record in 1985-86 remains the program’s highest winning percentage for any season since. After four seasons, Kruger left to become head coach at his alma mater of Kansas State.

Friday’s visit will give UTRGV an opportunity to induct Kruger into its Athletic Hall of Fame and Hall of Honor, an event Kruger modestly described as “a nice gesture on their part.”

Henson and Hill freely admit to “borrowing” much of what they learned through the years under Kruger’s guidance.

“There’s no question,” Henson said. “(I borrow) what I learned as a player and every day with him. Not just the X’s and O’s and the basketball part, but watching coach on a daily basis, how he treated people, how he always has the big picture in mind, how he always tries to do the right thing, plus the X’s and O’s. So much of what we do is going to be similar.”

Steve Henson

Long-time Kruger assistant and current UTSA head coach, Steve Henson was named the 2018 Conference USA Coach of the Year

Hill deadpanned, “Well, the first year here I thought I was coach Kruger. I thought, ‘My gosh, I’m like coach Kruger,’ but that’s a good thing. Now, I just be me. The first year, I was a lot of coach Kruger and I still do those things, but now I’m comfortable with being me.”

As is often the case when longtime assistants get their first head-coaching jobs, both Hill and Henson inherited struggling programs.

“They both were put into situations where the programs were down,” Kruger said. “Certainly it takes time to build them back and they’ve both done a terrific job. Both of their teams are much improved, so it’s going to be a challenge.”

The season prior to Hill’s arrival, UTRGV finished 8-22 overall and 4-10 in Western Athletic Conference play. Hill won 10 games his first season and 15 games last year, which is on pace for his goal of improving at least five victories every season.

“That’s the way you’ve got to go, just grow,” Hill said. “I love where I am. I know this is my best team so far.”

Meanwhile, Henson has transformed UTSA after taking over a 5-27 program that had placed last in Conference USA. After finishing 14-19 his first season, Henson led the Roadrunners to a 20-15 record and a fifth-place conference finish in 2017-18, which earned him C-USA Coach of the Year honors.

“Pace of play that first year wasn’t near what we wanted based on our personnel, but we started establishing some things -- toughness on defense, rebounding, taking care of the basketball,” Henson said. “Last year, we brought in some guys that allowed us to score and shoot the 3.”

Henson knows how rare it is for a major Division I team to hit the road against a smaller program. “The last stat I saw, major Division I programs play 89 percent of their games at home,” Henson said. “For him (Kruger) to do this tells you what coach is all about.”