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Understated Lon Kruger has turned Oklahoma around the right way

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger leads his fifth different team in the NCAA tournament and hopes to make his first Final Four in 21 years

SYRACUSE, N.Y.—A few years ago, Oklahoma’s basketball coaches were driving back to the Lloyd Noble Center from lunch when they saw a student walking down the street with his arms full of groceries. A bag suddenly ripped, and a 12-pack of soda cans tumbled out in every possible direction. Head coach Lon Kruger noticed the student scrambling, dropped off his staff and drove over to help the student pick up the mess. After all the groceries and cans were collected, he drove the student home. “Who does that?” Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield said. “I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have done it. That right there told me the way he sees life and people.”

Meet Lon Kruger, the Ned Flanders of college basketball coaches who is as underrated as he is understated. He’s allergic to self-promotion, vocally opposed to cheating and has only come to work without shaving a handful of times the past 25 years. He’s bespectacled like a history professor, earnest as an accountant and leaves friends searching for the most polite ways to describe him. “He’s kind of bland,” said Steve Henson, an Oklahoma assistant who played for Kruger at Kansas State in the late 1980s. “He’s not going to give any controversial quotes. He is what he is.”

In this odd mix of flawed teams at the anonymous East Regional—No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Louisville, No. 7 Michigan State and No. 8 North Carolina State—Kruger is a fitting character to be leading the highest-regarded team. The star power here comes from the coaches, as Kruger, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried have combined for 2,143 wins as Division I coaches. But as Kruger’s Sooners prepare to play Izzo’s Spartans on Friday night, Kruger is hands down be the least recognizable of the four.

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That distinction comes despite a résumé that includes a Final Four, three-year NBA stint and 561 college wins over 29 seasons.

Kruger, 62, is the only coach in college basketball history to win NCAA tournament games at five different schools—Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma. And he’s the only coach since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985 to bring four different teams to the Sweet 16—every program but Illinois. Kruger stays devoutly under-the-radar because of an upbringing that demanded it. The son of a mail carrier, he grew up straight out of Midwestern Small Town Central Casting. He’s one of six kids from Silver Lake, Kan., a town with fewer than 2,000 people. “My dad didn’t have a lot of rules,” Kruger said. “But you never spoke about yourself. You never used the word ‘I.’ It’s always about others. It’s always about ‘we.’”

Kruger has plenty to brag about. It’s easy to forget he was the two-time Big 8 Player of the Year at Kansas State in 1973 and '74. The distinction as a multiple winner puts him in the company of players like Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale, Kansas’ Danny Manning and Missouri’s Doug Smith. He was also drafted twice in baseball—he forgets the rounds—both out of high school and college. (He was selected in the 12th round by the Houston Astros in 1970 and by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 21st round in 1974.) Kruger was so athletic that he even got invited to try out for the Dallas Cowboys.

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He played one year of minor league baseball in the Cardinals organization in 1974 and spent that offseason playing professional basketball in Israel. The next year, he went to camp with the Detroit Pistons and got cut by Herb Brown. He didn’t really mind, though. He returned back to Topeka and married his college sweetheart, Barbara. “I’m the only guy who ever got cut,” he said, “and called home and said, ‘It’s great! We get to get married!’”

That set Kruger off on his vagabond coaching path: He began as an assistant coach at Pittsburg (Kan.) State in 1976-77 and became the head coach of Texas Pan-American in 1982-83. His alma mater called him home in 1986 to take over, a move that paid off when he took Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988 as a No. 4 seed. (The only bad part was losing to No. 6 Kansas, the eventual champion). From there, he bounced around and coached in every possible place and way. He played slow at Kansas State and up-tempo at UNLV. He led Florida to its first-ever Final Four in 1994 behind 286-pound Dametri Hill’s notorious “Meat Hook” shots in the lane. Florida led to a four-year gig at Illinois, where he went 0-3 in Round of 32 games. That run ended in 2000, when the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks came calling. Kruger endured three unspectacular years in Atlanta (69-122), including one season where his leading scorer was the forgettable Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

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Kruger returned to college in 2004 and went on a seven-year run at UNLV that included four NCAA tournament appearances. “He always leaves places better than he found them,” former UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood said. “He’s revered in Las Vegas as if he’s the second Jerry Tarkanian. That’s a tribute to Lon and how he goes about things.”

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione needed a new coach after Kelvin Sampson and Jeff Capel ran afoul with the NCAA. When Castiglione fired Capel in March 2011, he targeted Kruger. Along with a knack for winning, Kruger also brought a clean reputation. “Anyone can cheat and win,” Kruger said in a quiet moment at the Carrier Dome on Thursday. “There’s no satisfaction to me. My dad always said, ‘It’s a lot more fun to beat people by doing it the right way and beat people that cheat.’”

Castiglione struggled to lure Kruger to Oklahoma. After getting turned down twice, Castiglione finally got him to Dallas to meet with Oklahoma officials and finalize a deal. Reports of Kruger’s potential hire had surfaced when the parties met in a hotel suite. So when a knock on the door disturbed the meeting, Castiglione got nervous that they’d been discovered by the media. Two more knocks followed, and Castiglione finally cracked open the door to peek outside. He heard a high-pitched voice familiar to the business traveler. “Turn down service?” a woman asked in a sing-song tone. “You want turn down?”

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Both startled and relived, Castiglione blurted back: “No ma’am. It’s happened two times before and we’re not letting it happen again.” Castiglione soon finalized the deal with Kruger, leading to this current Oklahoma renaissance. “Clearly he’s demonstrated a true skill for building a championship program,” Castiglione said.  “Doing it five different places. It starts with the type of culture that he creates.”

​This is where the Kruger story diverts back to the bland and cliché. Ask how Oklahoma went from a Big 12 afterthought his first year to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament three seasons later, and phrases like “good kids,” “competitive spirit,” “good culture,” “gym rats,” and “trust” arise. Perhaps the most interesting part of Oklahoma’s team is that they run few set plays; walk-on guard James Fraschilla said they’ll only run eight or nine sets a game.

Kruger is the classic veteran coach—like Davidson’s Bob McKillop or Belmont’s Rick Byrd—who doesn’t over-coach from the sideline because he’s confident in what he has already instilled in his team. He believes in flow and transition, and the result is a free and easy style. These Sooners are led by guard Buddy Hield (17.3 ppg) and low-post grunt Ryan Spangler (9.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg). They personify a roster more noted for blue collars than blue chips. The Sooners play so freely—expect a shootout with Michigan State on Friday—that they’ve become discerning critics of the teams that slog in college basketball. “I’m not going to say the teams, but there’s not enough offensive flow and movement,” Hield said. “It makes the game so, so boring. I hate playing in boring games.”

So the coach may be a bit dull, but the results surely aren’t. And if Lon Kruger wins out this weekend, he’ll get a chance to re-introduce himself to America as a Final Four coach 21 years apart. Another Final Four appearance could even put him in the basketball Hall of Fame conversation, as it’s hard to argue with his consistency. Just don’t ask him to stump for himself. He’ll issue a quicker turn down than even the most aggressive hotel maid.