Ten years roaming the sidelines in Norman gave Lon Kruger ample opportunity to reflect back on how he got to Oklahoma and why the nomadic basketball savant made it his home for so long.
“Hard to believe,” Kruger said Friday, “it's been 10 years at Oklahoma.”
It was a decade ago this week that OU athletic director Joe Castiglione finally convinced Kruger to leave UNLV and come to Oklahoma to clean up the mess made by Jeff Capel and his wayward coaching staff.
Kruger and his wife Barb had just completed construction on their dream home in Las Vegas. The story goes that boxes weren’t even unpacked yet from the move-in.
Castiglione needed someone to come to OU and win games — but also do it the right way — and in his mind, there was no better candidate than Kruger.
Kruger appreciated the offer, but turned Castiglione down. Cold. Over the phone.
So Castiglione flew to Vegas. After meeting with the Krugers in their new home, Castiglione didn’t feel confident that his sales pitch worked.
It hadn’t. Kruger called Castiglione and said thanks, but no thanks.
But Joe C. wasn’t finished.
“You were tough to convince to come to Oklahoma,” Castiglione said to Kruger on Friday. “It was not once, twice, it was three times it took to try and get you to come to Oklahoma.
“But thank God, we are so blessed that you said yes.”
Even after a decade of reflection, Kruger can’t quite put his finger on why he chose to leave UNLV — and that fabulous custom-built home — to move halfway across the country and take on another college basketball reclamation project.
“It’s hard to say why,” Kruger said. “Anyone who knows Joe knows he can be pretty persistent. And when he's got a plan, when you’ve got a vision …
“It was not once, twice, it was three times it took to try and get you to come to Oklahoma. But thank God, we are so blessed that you said yes.”
“Barbara and I, I think just, you know, we didn't expect to leave Vegas. We loved the people there. We've been fortunate every step of the way to develop great relationships, great friendships and have those to this day.
“So I guess in the end, (coaching in the) Big 12 is appealing. The Sooner brand. We knew from the Kansas State days and competing against Oklahoma how strong their brand was — and we’ve learned since that it’s even way more powerful than what we knew from the outside. It’s an unbelievable worldwide brand.
“I guess the more Barb and I talked about it, getting back to our roots in the Midwest, and the Big 12, the opportunity to recruit the type of people that gave us a chance to compete one more time for that Final Four opportunity, and we just loved going that route.”
Like he did at Texas-Pan American, like he did at Kansas State, like he did at Florida, like he did at UNLV, Kruger fixed the problems at Oklahoma. In 10 years, his OU teams made seven NCAA Tournaments (2020 would have been eight), and Kruger accomplished those heights with the highest degree of character.
“Barb and I have had the opportunity for the last 45-50 years to get up every day and do something … we love to do,” Kruger said, fighting back tears.
As Kevin Kruger begins his head coaching career back at UNLV, no doubt his dad will be alongside in some capacity — maybe just as Dad, but who knows?
"We didn't expect to leave Vegas. We loved the people there."
Lon and Barbara reportedly have purchased a $2.9 million home in Southern Highlands — they closed on it Dec. 18, apparently — and will move there immediately.
And maybe someday that dream home they finished 10 years ago will be on the market again.
But Kruger’s legacy at Oklahoma is secure.
“No regrets in that for sure,” Kruger said, “Again, enjoyed Vegas, love the people there, we developed that same those same relationships here and will be forever grateful to Joe for that — and others at Oklahoma.”