The annual Sooner Basketball Family Weekend was the creation of Oklahoma men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger. Although it’s his show, he is not the show.
This was easily evident last Saturday afternoon while Team Crimson was in the process of defeating Team Cream 84-79 in the fifth annual Legends Alumni Game at Lloyd Noble Center. With roughly 1,500 fans in the stands and 145 former players, coaches, managers, trainers, et al, in attendance, Kruger quietly observed from a chair while hiding in the south tunnel.
“What head coach of any Division I program in America wouldn’t be sitting front and center?” asked OU Regent Renzi Stone, who played center for the Sooners from 1997-2000. “Instead, he’s sitting in the tunnel, behind the scenes, letting everybody else have their moment. He’s just remarkable. College coaching might be the most screwed up profession there is, especially in basketball. It’s just such a narcissistic profession and Lon is the anti-narcissist. With him there’s nothing but humble leadership, Christian values. He’s competitive without losing track of what’s important.”
Stone is among the many who marvel at what Kruger does and the manner in which he does it.
Renee Forney is about to enter her 23rd season as secretary of the Sooners’ head basketball coach, having previously served Billy Tubbs, Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel. Shortly after Kruger accepted OU’s coaching offer, athletic director Joe Castiglione quickly put a call into Forney.
“Joe C. told me, ‘Coach Kruger would like to meet you.’ I was out gardening and I said, ‘Now?’” Forney recalled with a laugh. “Within five minutes my phone rang and it was Coach Kruger.”
It was April 1, 2011, three days before Kruger formally was introduced as coach, and he immediately peppered Forney with questions. Where were you raised? Tell me about your parents. What does your husband do? Tell me about your children. Forney was the focus of the entire conversation, not Kruger.
Forney said she updated her resume when Capel had been fired 2 1/2 weeks earlier and she had no clue if she would be asked to stay on staff. Kruger suddenly blurted out, “Well, I just want to welcome you to the OU family.”
What head coach of any Division I program in America wouldn’t be sitting front and center? Instead, he’s sitting in the tunnel, behind the scenes, letting everybody else have their moment. He’s just remarkable.
OU Regent Renzi Stone
Forney already had been with the program nearly two decades, Kruger had yet to be introduced as coach, and it was Kruger who welcomed Forney to the OU family.
“I said, ‘Coach, you have not met me yet.’ He said, ‘I don’t need to,’” Forney recalled. “I almost started crying.”
After meeting with his new team and staff upon arrival, Kruger’s first order of business was to reach out to people previously involved with OU basketball.
Steve Henson has known Kruger for 30 years. He played for Kruger at Kansas State (1986-90) and served as an assistant coach for him at Illinois, the NBA Atlanta Hawks, UNLV and now OU.
“This was important to him from the beginning,” Henson said of the Sooner Basketball Family Weekend. “He really wanted to make this a good event. He put a lot of time into it early. He did the exact same thing when he started the Coaches vs. Cancer golf tournament in Vegas. He made that into an unbelievable event.”
From the outset, Forney played a huge role in helping organize the alumni reunion. “Renee is unbelievable,” Henson said. “She’s diligent and relentless. She loved it. She knows all these guys. She loves all these guys.”
Former Sooners point guard Tim Heskett (1997-2001) was in Mexico with his wife when Kruger was hired. “I had three voicemails on my cellphone the first week he was on the job,” said Heskett, who has worked for SandRidge Energy the past eight years. “He was calling former players to tell them he wanted them around the program. He wanted to introduce himself. He wanted us to be proud of something we helped build and wanted us to be around him. He’s unbelievable, and it’s genuine. Some people do it for different reasons, but his is genuine.”
Kruger led the Sooners to the Sweet 16 last season. The NCAA requires practice be closed to the public, marking the first time in his tenure a practice has not been open.
A three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball, Kruger was born and raised in Silver Lake, Kan., went on to excel at basketball and baseball at Kansas State and was drafted in both sports. Kruger admits his Midwestern upbringing helped lure him from UNLV to OU.
“Lon understands the culture here,” said Tubbs, a Tulsa native. “Kansas is not that far away from Oklahoma. He understands the history of Oklahoma in what was the old Big Eight. He brought that culture in, so he’s a fit. You have to understand what makes all these people tick. He’s been a good fit everywhere he’s been. He’s just done a really fabulous job. This event is awesome.”
Stone certainly is not alone in his appreciation of Kruger.
The affable and approachable Kruger is a man of the people, for the people. After three straight losing seasons (2009-12), a true sense of family has returned to OU basketball thanks to Kruger, perhaps to a height never achieved before.
Kruger’s invitation list to the alumni event was lengthy and not limited to just former OU players and coaches. It also included managers, trainers, broadcasters, staff members, et al.
The next time you hear somebody say something bad about Kruger as a person will be the first time. The 63-year-old Kruger is not the norm, and proof comes from multiple directions:
• All of his practices are open to the public and to media. Last season, when the Sooners advanced to the Sweet 16, practices prior to the Dayton and Michigan State games were closed due to NCAA Tournament rules. It marked the first time practice had been closed since Kruger arrived at OU.
• Kruger is not afraid to share his cellphone number with media, a gesture that officially puts him atop the endangered species list.
• On Aug. 22, two days before classes started, the OU athletics department held a party for employees and their families. Kruger offered to host the event on his farm, which had plenty of room for a huge tent, a petting zoo and bouncy rides for the kids. Shetland ponies Boomer and Sooner of the Sooner Schooner made an appearance for the estimated crowd of 500 that attended. The Supersonic Love Club band performed, for which Castiglione’s son, Jonathan, is the drummer.
• Kruger occasionally will leave two of his allotted game tickets for a maintenance worker.
• When Kruger left Illinois in 2000 to coach the Atlanta Hawks, he was replaced by Tulsa coach Bill Self, who is now at Kansas. Self said he has never dealt with a more gracious person during a coaching change, a situation that almost always turns out to be awkward. “Lon was the best coach in the world to follow because he was such a low-key guy, had no ego, really cared about (his) players and he wanted those players to be successful,” Self said.
• Kruger’s office door is never closed. Not to players, staff, fans, anyone. Not even after a loss. “The door is always open. That’s not normal,” Forney said. “Lon is always Lon. His demeanor does not change at all whether you win or lose. He comes in with a smile on his face, says hello to everybody. It’s amazing. He’s always happy. He’s always upbeat. I kid you not. That’s very rare to see a coach who does not change.”
• While coaching at Florida, the Gators had gotten a new charter plane. After returning home from a trip, everyone in the travel party deboarded the plane except Kruger, who noticed litter throughout the cabin. With the travel party waiting on the team bus, Kruger picked up the trash, walked onto the bus and calmly placed the trash bag on the floor. Everyone on the bus knew what had just transpired. Without saying a word, Kruger’s message had been sent. He never had to pick up after that team again.
• Fans often drop by the OU basketball office wanting to meet Kruger. “He always says, ‘You let me know when someone comes in to see me,’” Forney said. “He always meets them. He doesn’t go try to hide or not be out in the public. There was a worker sweating from head to toe and he wanted to meet coach. The minute coach hears a visitor come in, he’s immediately out of his office to greet them. This worker took off his hat that was dripping with sweat and asked for an autograph. Coach didn’t change his demeanor at all, signed the hat and they started talking about some coach they knew from Kansas.”
• Stone met Kruger at McCasland Field House the day he was introduced as the Sooners’ new coach. “The first question he asked was for my opinion on what I thought the program needed,” recalled Stone. “He then told me some of the characteristics he was looking for in an assistant coach and if I had anybody in mind (Kruger wound up hiring Chris Crutchfield). I was so impressed. I’m just some former player who showed up and he had enough interest in me to ask my opinion on the program and on a coaching hire. Whether he had any intention of taking any of the advice, it made me feel like he valued my opinion.”
Lon is always Lon. His demeanor does not change at all whether you win or lose. He comes in with a smile on his face, says hello to everybody. It’s amazing. He’s always happy.
Mike Anderson of Ada served as an assistant under Tubbs and you can add him to the list of Kruger supporters. “He (Kruger) was the perfect fit for this job,” Anderson said. “He was exactly what OU needed at the time. He understands the importance of the position and how important it is to get everyone back involved. I think you’re starting to see the fruits of that with his team. He’s got a tremendous team this year.”
Kruger has a long-standing reputation for excelling in X’s and O’s, particularly on offensive and out-of-bounds sets. His teams are known for being consistent and tough-minded.
“He definitely has a system,” said Heskett, who spent some time as a college assistant coach. “When you’re successful, and you’re a really good coach, you can change the parts, but great coaches win no matter what. He wins wherever he goes, no matter what the parts are. That’s what he does. He’s brought energy and excitement back to this program. The way he reached out to all the former players to get us back involved, it was really special.”
Perhaps Kruger’s bachelor’s degree in business from KSU helped with his organizational skills.
He is no stranger to arranging events, particularly for charities. As part of the enormously successful Coaches vs. Cancer program sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Kruger was instrumental in starting the Coaches vs. Cancer’s Las Vegas Golf Classic, which has raised approximately $2.5 million over the first eight years to benefit research, education and treatment programs for the American Cancer Society. In 2012, Kruger received the national Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award for his work.
Kruger has a reputation as the nicest man on campus, which is well-earned. What people often don't see is that he may also be the most competitive.
Wherever Kruger has coached, he and wife, Barbara, have been deeply involved in community projects.
At Florida, Lon and Barbara 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.
While Kruger coached the Atlanta Hawks, Barbara was involved with “My House,” a transitional home for children 1 to 3 years old.
When Kruger coached UNLV, 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.
Among the many Las Vegas causes Kruger was involved with include 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.
“He’s unbelievable,” Forney said of Kruger. “I say that and I truly mean it.”
John Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.