BY JOHN ROHDE
Feb. 25, 2017
With Oklahoma’s 81-51 triumph over Kansas State on Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center, Lon Kruger picked up his 600th career victory as an NCAA Division I basketball coach.
Coincidentally, he achieved the milestone against the school where he previously excelled as an athlete and coach.
And like the 599 wins that came before, Kruger deflected attention away from himself while being careful to include everyone who helped make his achievement possible.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Kruger said of his journey to No. 600. “It’s been great, all the relationships and all the people you’ve met and worked with. And the players, of course, are at the heart of all of it. That’s why any of those wins come about.”
Kruger has served at six different colleges – Texas-Pan American (1982-86), Kansas State (1986-90), Florida (1990-96), Illinois (1996-2000), UNLV (2004-11) and Oklahoma (2011-present). He is the first head coach to take five different Division I schools to the NCAA Tournament (Pan American being the exception); all five of those schools made multiple appearances; all five had at least one tournament win; four advanced to the Sweet 16 (Illinois being the exception); and he made it to the Final Four with Florida in 1994 and with OU last season.
Few coaches have done as much re-construction work as Kruger. At each collegiate stop, he inherited a program that had struggled the year before, sometimes woefully. Schools where he took the reins were a combined 78-99 (.440) the season prior to his arrival and no program was coming off a winning season in conference play with a combined league record of 26-54 (.325).
Did any relocation project seem more challenging, frustrating, exasperating and/or disappointing than the others?
“All the situations are unique one way or another, of course,” Kruger said. “In terms of our approach, we’ve approached them all the same. It’s always about people. It’s always about relationships. It’s always about recruiting, finding the right fit in those situations. It’s always a bit different at each place, but it’s always comes down to people, for sure.”
Kruger ranks 10th among active coaches in Division I victories and is now the 33rd coach to reach 600. The man who ranks 32nd in career wins is none other than former Sooners coach Billy Tubbs, who had 609 victories in D-I, plus another 31 in two seasons at Division III Southwestern University in Texas.
In fact, of those 33 coaches with 600-plus wins, seven (21.2 percent) have Oklahoma ties. There is Tubbs and Lou Henson (728), who was born in Okay, Okla. The remaining five coaches are branches from the same coaching tree – the mighty oak known as Mr. Henry P. Iba (755). Eddie Sutton (806) played for Iba at Oklahoma State (known as Oklahoma A&M until Sutton’s senior season); Enid native Don Haskins (719) also played for Iba at A&M; current Kansas coach and Okmulgee native Bill Self (618), played at OSU and later served an assistant coach under Sutton there. Meanwhile, Kruger excelled at Kansas State for coach Jack Hartman, a Dewey, Okla., native who also played for Iba at Oklahoma A&M. (Abe Lemons, a native of Walters, Okla., was not attached to the Iba tree. Like Kruger, Lemons coached briefly at Texas-Pan American. He also coached at Texas, had two stints Oklahoma City University and fell just shy of No. 600 with 597 career wins.)
Kruger said he never envisioned reaching 600 career victories when he became head coach at Texas-Pan American in 1982. “I think we won seven games (7-21) our first year there,” Kruger said with a chuckle, “so I didn’t think too much about the number of (career) wins.”
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach Sherri Coale, who has amassed 464 career wins so far in her 21 seasons at OU, said of Kruger: “I guarantee you he wouldn’t know he had 600 wins unless somebody told him.”
Tubbs said he doesn’t recall taking special notice of his milestone victories. “When I hit No. 500 (at TCU), that was probably the first time I ever paid attention,” said Tubbs, who admitted he had other things on his mind at the time. “Exactly, like getting to No. 501. The higher the number gets, the bigger the achievement gets.”
Tubbs and Kruger battled for four seasons (1986-90) in the Big Eight Conference while Kruger coached his alma mater. In the 1987-88 season, three Big Eight teams advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. OU beat Villanova in the Southeast Regional final to advance to the Final Four in Kansas City, while Kansas beat Kansas State in the Midwest Regional final to advance.
“Kansas beat Kansas State to go to Kansas City, which was really a damn thrill,” deadpanned Tubbs, whose top-seeded Sooners were upset 83-79 by the sixth-seeded Jayhawks in the national championship game staged at Kemper Arena, located just 40 miles from the KU campus. Kruger coached one of only four teams to beat a powerhouse OU team that finished 35-4 in 1987-88, winning 69-62 at KSU in January.
Kruger stepped away from collegiate ball in 2000 for another construction project, leaving Illinois to coach the NBA Atlanta Hawks, who were 28-54 (.341) the prior season. Kruger coached 191 games for the Hawks and was let go 27 games into his third season after amassing a 69-122 record (.361). Kruger then served as an assistant with the New York Knicks during the 2003-04 season when the Knicks went through three head coaches (Don Chaney, Herb Williams and Lenny Wilkens).
Kruger insists he does not regret his temporary move to the NBA. “Not at all. It was a great experience,” Kruger said. “Even given all the factors, we think of it in a healthy way. It got our attention. We thought we could go down there and help turn it around. We were naïve to it and it backfired. It kind of recharged our batteries a little bit perhaps.”
In 2004-05, Kruger went back to school to coach UNLV before taking over the Sooners seven seasons later. At OU, Kruger inherited a team that was 14-18 overall and 5-11 in 2010-11 for a 10th-place tie in the Big 12. During the courting process, Kruger initially turned down multiple offers to coach the Sooners, but OU athletics director Joe Castiglione persisted and eventually landed his man.
No telling where Kruger’s collegiate victory total might be had he not departed for four NBA seasons. “The number he’s at right now realistically could be 700, and he’s still a young guy,” Self said of the 64-year-old Kruger. “So when you think of it like that, hey, this guy for sure would get to 800 (D-I wins) if it weren’t for the time he served in the NBA.”
Those who have known Kruger longest aren’t surprised at the arrival of No. 600.
SMU coach Tim Jankovich played at Kansas State (1979-82) when Kruger served as an assistant there under Hartman. Jankovich later served as an assistant under Kruger at Texas-Pan American (1983-84) and as an assistant under Self at Illinois (2002-03) and Kansas (2003-07).
“Back then, I knew 100 percent that he would be a great, great coach,” Jankovich said of Kruger. “We went to Japan when I was in college and coach Hartman had to leave for one game and coach Kruger coached that game. I remember thinking even then he’d be great to play for. He’s so positive. He’s got such a great, positive, competitive outlook. I knew he’d be great then and he’s had such a great career.”
Self replaced Kruger at Illinois, but they had crossed paths earlier. “He was always nice to me when I was an assistant coach,” Self said of Kruger. “When he went to the (1994) Final Four at Florida, (San Antonio Spurs general manager and Self’s longtime friend) R.C. Buford worked for Lon at Florida and I heard so many positive things from R.C. about him. I also heard so many good things from Tim about Lon. Over time, although I didn’t know him that well, I kind of felt like I did. Following him at Illinois, I saw first-hand what a good person he is, a class guy, because he made my transition there as seamless for me as it could possibly be.”
What is it about Kruger’s teams that have led him to the six-century mark?
“From playing against him, I think his defenses are really good,” Tubbs recalled of Kruger’s teams. “It was tough when we played against him. He switches everything (defensively). I think that can give anybody problems because it’s a different look. Basically, what you have is a combination of man and zone (coverages). I’ve noticed a lot of times this year they’ve said he’s playing zone when I thought he was playing man with his normal switching.
“Plus, he’s adjusted to the times, and that says something in itself. The game has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years or so. Now they make it hard to guard dribble penetration. In the Big Eight days, there really wasn’t that much dribble penetration. This year’s (OU) team, that’s pretty much what they’re all about. Take it to the basket.”
Self mentioned the Iba influence when discussing Kruger’s success. “He came from a background similar to Mr. Iba’s background, having played and worked for Jack Hartman,” Self said. “I think he is a master to playing to mismatches and does it about as well as anybody I’ve ever coached against. His teams take care of the basketball, they take good shots, they don’t beat themselves and certainly that’s a pretty good formula for success, one in which coach Sutton won over 800 games.”
Perhaps most notable is Kruger’s remarkably calm demeanor, no matter what the circumstance.
Tubbs: “He pretty much stays on an even keel all the time.”
Self: “His demeanor is as good as there is. He’s highly competitive, obviously. That’s a given, considering how much success he’s had. He never seems to get rattled. He seems to be ultra-positive.”
Jankovich: “We used to play ping-pong, tennis, one-on-one basketball, anything that we could think of that was competitive. What people don’t see is what a fierce, fierce competitor he is. It makes me laugh when people talk about his demeanor. Underneath all that, people don’t realize what a competitor he is, but he stays positive through it all. When you challenge him, he fights back.”
Coale: “To me, his most impressive trait is his even-temperament. He’s always the same. That’s easy for kids to buy into and puts them in a position for optimal success. It gives him an avenue to be a keen observer, which is probably a coach’s greatest job.”
In his first five seasons at OU, Kruger produced four NCAA Tournament appearances, three top-three finishes in the Big 12, the national player of the year in Buddy Hield and a trip to the 2016 Final Four. The Sooners were ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll every week last season and made their first appearance at the No. 1 spot for the first time since the 1989-90 season.
Kruger is the first coach in OU history to win six NCAA tournament games within his first five seasons. With 111 wins, Kruger owns the second-most victories in the first five seasons of coaching the Sooners. Only Tubbs (115) won more games in that span.
Asked if Kruger’s approach has changed since his arrival, Coale said, “Not since I’ve known him. The thing I appreciate about him just from a basketball standpoint is his ability to manipulate a game and put his guys into a position to have an advantage. It’s all that matchup stuff they do in the NBA. That’s harder to do than you think and he makes it look pretty easy.”
Most impressive about Kruger is he somehow has remained the same self-effacing person through all his success. “He is the nicest guy on the planet,” Coale said. “Not jealous of anyone.”
Six hundred career victories and still modest as ever. A rare combination indeed.