Lonnie and Chip will face each other one last time.
It’s become a preseason tradition the past five years at Oklahoma that two best friends coach against each another in an exhibition contest in Norman. Lonnie, being OU head coach Lon Kruger, and Chip, Washburn’s Bob Chipman, will face each other again on Tuesday in the Sooners’ lone exhibition before the 2016-17 season.
Best friends for over 40 years, Kruger and Chipman have each defined their own paths of college basketball success. Kruger is coming off his second trip to the Final Four and 17th NCAA Tournament appearance. He is the only coach in Division I history to lead five different schools to a win in the Big Dance.
Chipman is 12 wins shy of his 800th victory and owns the third most wins all-time by a Division II coach. His 788-343 record in 37 years at Washburn puts him at 17th in coaching wins at any NCAA level. His Ichabod teams have tallied 12 MIAA regular season titles and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances.
No one could be happier for Chipman’s success than Kruger.
“Chip and I have been best friends since our college days,” said Kruger. “A great friend off the court as well. To watch him do what he’s done at a higher level than all but a handful of other coaches in the history of college basketball is great. I’ve been cheering his teams on for 30-plus years. At the end of this year he’ll have over 800 wins, not many people have done that at a high level. More importantly than that, Chip’s relationships with his players have always been about preparing them for life after basketball. His players have gone on to great success with family and in business.”
Tuesday night in Norman will be the final time the two friends coach on opposite sides of the hardwood. After 37 seasons at the helm of the Washburn program, Chipman has announced he will retire following the 2016-17 season.
While both coaches will be focusing much on their own teams and using the exhibition to tune their respective squads for the start of the regular season, the reality of playing one last game against a lifelong friend won’t be forgotten.
“This will be my last game against a Division I opponent,” said Chipman. “For it to be against Lon, it can’t be any sweeter than that. I’m so excited and so thankful.”
The two first met in 1971 on the Kansas State basketball team. Kruger was a sophomore at the time and Chipman had just transferred in from Mott Community Junior College, in his hometown of Flint, Mich. Chipman was immediately impressed by the competitiveness Kruger showed on the court and the love he had for his teammates.
“He’s just fiercely competitive,” said Chipman. “When that ball was tossed, no one competed in the right way more than Lonnie. I learned a lot from that too as a player and as a person. He’s such a nice guy away from it and will just spoil you as a friend, but talk about fierce competitor.”
Kruger felt the same way about his teammate.
"“I think when I look across, I’m so proud of him and to say that he’s my friend. I just can’t tell you what it means to me. I’m just so proud of him. Every year as he gets greater and greater with all these accomplishments, he’s still Lonnie."
— Bob Chipman
“I don’t think people fully appreciate how good of a player he was,” said Kruger. “He came in from junior college, so he only had two years and that may be a little bit of the reason. But just a really, really good player. He got after you defensively, shared the ball offensively, made plays off the dribble, great plays in transition. Just an outstanding player.”
In their two seasons of playing together, Kansas State won back-to-back Big Eight titles with a combined record of 42-14. Kruger earned Big Eight Sophomore of the Year in 1972 and his first of two Big Eight Player of the Year honors in 1973.
“I loved playing with him at Kansas State,” said Chipman. “It was the ultimate fun. If you were open, you knew that Lonnie was going to get you the ball. Lonnie, he was already a coach. He’d say to me, ‘Hey, I’m going to weave one to you then go ahead and shoot it.’ Just an incredible teammate. I can’t tell you how great a teammate he was in every way. That was fun, just being able to play with him.”
Chipman knew that Kruger had the makeup of a coach even at 20 years old. He recalls one game early in his senior season when the Wildcats were on the road at Utah and playing poorly in the opening half – so much so, that K-State head coach Jack Hartman left the locker room in anger without a plan for the second half.
That’s when Kruger took the whiteboard.
“Coach [Jack] Hartman was tough and he had everyone pretty much terrified, including his coaches and he just said, ‘You guys figure it out,’ and was mad and just left,” recalled Chipman. “Everyone froze because he had never done that before. Even the coaching staff froze. Lonnie jumped up there and started diagraming a couple plays we need to do to start the second half…Lon is such a leader, you could tell in the coaching – he was always the coach on the floor. He was always the consummate leader. He was always thinking ahead and thinking what we had to do next. He just showed it at that moment, a tough moment where everyone else leaned back in their seats and opened up their eyes real big. He jumped up there and said what we need to do now. That was just Lonnie. He was always one step ahead of everybody. That’s who he still is to this day.”
Now both as coaches, the two have remained very close over the years. While Kruger has been traveling across the country the past four decades in various head coaching jobs, Chipman has stayed rooted at Division II Washburn in Topeka, Kan., just a few miles from Kruger’s hometown of Silver Lake. The two have been able to remain close through their love for basketball, golf and making an impact on young men through the sport they both cherish.
“We talk basketball all the time,” said Kruger. “We talk about different ways to cover ball screens or different ways to look for things in transition. We’re exchanging ideas all the time. We spend as much time as we can in the offseason. His wife, Carol, is great; she and Barb are good friends. We love their family and all the things they stand for.”
This past summer, Kruger, Chipman and a group of friends spent a week playing some of the best golf courses of Scotland to celebrate various accomplishments, including Kruger’s Final Four run and Chipman’s retirement. They continue to support each other on the course, as they both attend the annual Kansas State golf tournament each fall and Kruger’s Coaches vs. Cancer event in each spring.
While Chipman does look forward to life after basketball and more time on the putting green, he does have one last season ahead of him. Tuesday will mark the 13th straight meeting between Kruger and Chipman. The Ichabods have faced Kruger at UNLV and OU for the past 12 consecutive seasons. Similar to the past 12 outings to Vegas and Norman, Chipman looks at his annual game against Kruger as the ultimate tune-up for the season.
“It’s been a dream come true for our program,” said Chipman. “With his great teams and the great tradition at Oklahoma, to go in and for him to play us every year…everybody in the country wants that game and for him to do that, I can’t tell you what that means to us and our program. The obvious advantages for our team to go up and compete against great teams and great players – we learn so much about our team in that game. Things that maybe we can do, things we definitely can’t do.”
But the advantages don’t stop when the exhibition concludes. Chipman has access to one of the greatest basketball minds in the country to dissect how his team has played. He hasn’t been shy in calling Kruger throughout the season looking for advice on his team, and Kruger has never been shy in giving his opinion.
“The conversations with Lon after he watches film, the ‘Hey what do you think about this guy’ or ‘what do you think about this scheme on offense?’” said Chipman. “He is one of the great coaches of college basketball and for him to be able to critique my team has meant so much for me over the years, I just can’t tell you…Just being able to pick one of the great coach’s brains in college basketball, for him to be able to see our team – I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”
The Ichabods aren’t the only team benefiting from the game. Kruger says the way Chipman coaches his players make Washburn an ideal opponent for an exhibition game to prepare his Sooners for each season.
“His teams always play the right way,” said Kruger. “They play hard, they’re going to challenge you every time you line up. He’ll call and ask what we need to work on before we play, I’ll do that same thing with them. He’s that type of an opponent for an exhibition game that you like because they’re not going to hold the ball, they’re not going to sit in a zone. They’re going to get out and challenge you and make you play and do that things that you’ve done in practice.”
And while their basketball conversations, golf outings and trips home together will continue after this season, there is still the weight and joy that comes in one final game against a lifelong friend.
Kruger, Chipman and a group of friends playing a round at the Old Course at St Andrews this past summer.
“Anytime someone has an outstanding career like Chip has had with over 800 wins, it’s special,” said Kruger. “To see him experience his final year and have the opportunity to share one night of that with him is an honor for us.”
The two highly-focused individuals may not be able to take their minds off of their respective teams for long enough on Tuesday to fully grasp the moment they’re experiencing, but perhaps they’ll find just enough time to peer down the sideline and reflect on the memories they’ve had as teammates, friends and – for one last game – opposing coaches.
“Lonnie and I are a little bit old school,” said Chipman. “He’s watching his group, I’m watching my group. I kind of know he’s there but when the ball’s tossed, the way he’s so into it and I’m so into is…He’s just such an incredible person. I admire him so much for the type of person that he is away from the game and how supportive he is of not only me, but all of his friends. He’s never big-timed anybody, he’s just Lonnie. He’s just there and he’s a friend. Look at the success he’s had, taking all these different teams into the NCAA tournament. I was so proud of him last year. For him to take that team to the Final Four just tells you how great Coach Kruger is.
“I think when I look across, I’m so proud of him and to say that he’s my friend. I just can’t tell you what it means to me. I’m just so proud of him. Every year as he gets greater and greater with all these accomplishments, he’s still Lonnie. He’ll still do whatever, he’ll still be your friend. Just an incredible person in my life that I’ve known for 40-some years. With me being in coaching, wow. What a friend he’s been.”