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 in 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 they advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2009.
In 2013-14, Kruger led OU to a 23-10 record and a 12-6 Big 12 mark, which was good for sole possession of second place. For his efforts, Kruger was named AP Big 12 Coach of the Year.
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 re-ascension 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 strong 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 six 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, 61, 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.
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 practices obstetrics and gynecology in Henderson, Nev., 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, now an OU graduate assistant manager, went on to play professionally overseas and with the NBA Development League's Utah Flash. Angie was married to Mike Ciklin in the fall of 2008. Mike is an associate at SPB Partners in Las Vegas. The couple had their first child, a daughter named Avery, in August 2012.
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. Over the past seven years, Kruger has been instrumental in starting the Coaches vs. Cancer's Las Vegas Classic, which has raised more than $1.5 million to benefit research, education and treatment programs for the Nevada Cancer Institute and 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 "My House," a transitional home for children 1-3 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.