EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a seven-part series on the playing and coaching career of new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.
Lon Kruger's first big-time national signing was a two-for-one coup.
Kruger hired Moberly (Mo.) basketball coach Dana Altman. When Moberly star Mitch Richmond followed his junior college coach to Kansas State, Kruger revived his alma mater's program and catapulted his career.
Voted the best player through Kansas State's first 100 seasons, Richmond led K-State to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, highlighted by an Elite Eight finish his senior year.
Nearly three decades later, Richmond remains the best player Kruger has ever coached.
“It's hard to choose one player over another,” Kruger said. “But given the results, and given his NBA career, Mitch was great. It wasn't just statistically. He loved to play. He loved to compete. He was a special player.”
Steve Henson, who would become an assistant coach under Kruger for nearly a decade, was a freshman and sophomore during Richmond's two seasons. Henson helped continue the run with two more NCAA appearances, the first time in school history the Wildcats made four consecutive trips to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
“It shows if you have good players you have a lot better chance getting the results you want,” Kruger said. “Mitch was the key guy. Steve Henson. Charles Bledsoe. Will Scott. Just go down the list. Those guys really meshed well together.
“But Mitch was at the core of all that. His work ethic was huge to the program.”
The work ethic was similar to his coach's principles. Kruger learned those from his parents.
Kruger's father was a mailman. His mother raised six kids, including five boys.
Ultra competitive, complemented by a charitable off-the-court personality, Kruger has led four schools to the NCAA Tournament.
Hired in April to revive Oklahoma's program, Kruger can become the first coach to record an NCAA Tournament win at five different schools.
But there was a time when Kruger's coaching career could have been delayed.
Kruger was a shortstop drafted by the Houston Astros out of high school, then the St. Louis Cardinals out of college.
He chose to give the NBA a shot. Ernie Kusnyer, Kruger's teammate, recalled his buddy being invited to the Detroit Pistons training camp.
“He probably should have made the Pistons, but they didn't keep him, so he decided to go to Pittsburg (Kan.) and get his master's and coach,” Kusnyer said. “I'm thinking, ‘You have a chance to play in the NBA and you want to go coach?' There wasn't much money in coaching in those days.”
It's a decision that launched a career that's produced 548 wins — 479 in college, 69 in the NBA.
K-State athletic director Larry Travis also made a decision pivotal to Kruger's career.
Even though Kruger was a K-State legend, his only head coaching experience was four years building a fledgling Pan American program in Texas.
The Broncs were 52-59 under Kruger. His final year was the only winning season of his budding career.
“He was a K-State guy that played for coach (Jack) Hartman, who highly recommended him,” Travis said. “It couldn't have turned out any better. He was a great person. His teams played hard. He was as competitive a coach as I've ever been around. He had a really good run.”
Kruger's run — 81 wins in four seasons — paled compared to Hartman's 294 wins, the most in K-State history.
But at the end of Hartman's career, the program slipped to 12-16, 14-15, 14-14 and 16-14 his final four seasons.
“Lon wasn't that far removed from being the two-time Big Eight Player of the Year,” said Mark Dobbins, a sophomore when Kruger was hired. “He was young. He really brought the buzz back.
“Nothing against Jack Hartman, he was a great coach. But Lon was a breath of fresh air. He energized things. He brought some youthful enthusiasm. He brought in some good coaches and some really good players like Mitch Richmond. He's a great coach. Look at what he's accomplished.”
It started at his alma mater at age 34.
“It was special, no question,” Kruger said. “You can't replicate the feelings you have about your alma mater. I was very young at the time. I didn't fully appreciate it because I hadn't been a lot of other places.”
Nearly three decades later, Kruger has been a lot of different places. His seven years at UNLV is the longest stint of his career. He spent six years at Florida, four at Illinois and four at K-State. He coached briefly in the NBA.
“Anytime you work at your alma mater it can be a bitter-sweet venture,” said Mitch Holthus, K-State's play-by-play voice during the Kruger era. “Some thought he might stay and build a career there because of all the equity he put in that place as a player and a coach.”
Kruger could have left two years earlier when Texas pursued him after the Elite Eight season. The timing seemed right with Richmond leaving for the NBA, where he was named Rookie of the Year.
To squash rumors, Kruger called Dobbins and Henson into his office. He promised the duo he would stay two more years.
“That meant a lot to us,” Dobbins said. “I was going to be a senior, Steve a junior. I thought he was leaving. There are some people who had hard feelings when he left K-State, but I don't. He kept his word and stayed through our senior years.”
K-State fans, though, were crushed when Kruger left for Florida.
“The opportunity to experience a lot of different things, the challenge of something different, always has been intriguing to me,” Kruger said. “It wasn't a plan we had. As your career unfolds that's what has happened. We've enjoyed it. We've been very fortunate to meet good people at every stop.
“But looking back, coaching at your alma mater was very special.”