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How Lon Kruger helped revive Illinois basketball

By Mike Baldwin, Staff Writer, Published: July 13, 2011

photo - Lon Kruger was hired as Illinois' head coach in 1996. Kruger took over for the retired Lou Henson, who coached the Illini for 21 years. AP photo
Lon Kruger was hired as Illinois' head coach in 1996. Kruger took over for the retired Lou Henson, who coached the Illini for 21 years. AP photo

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a seven-part series on the playing and coaching career of new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.

In Indiana, it's known as the Valentine Massacre.

At Illinois, it's the game Lon Kruger helped restore the basketball program's rich tradition.

The Illini were playing for a chance to tie for the 1998 Big Ten title in the regular season finale in Bloomington, Ind.

Illinois won, 82-72. But the game is best remembered for Indiana coach Bob Knight's temper tantrum.

With just under 10 minutes left, Knight became enraged after receiving his second and third technical fouls from referee Ted Valentine.

"It was on national television," said Jerry Hester, one of five senior starters for Illinois. "While Bob Knight was screaming and yelling, not wanting to leave the floor, Coach Kruger pulled us over to the bench.

"He joked with us on some plays that were funny throughout the game. Now that I'm older, I realize what he did. He kept us away from any distractions. That helped us stay focused. We finished that game strong."

During 21 seasons at Illinois, Lou Henson compiled a strong resume, highlighted by a trip to the 1989 Final Four.

But over his final nine seasons, Henson compiled only one NCAA Tournament win and many lower division Big Ten finishes.

The NCAA hit the program with sanctions in 1991.

"Coach Kruger is the one who turned everything around," said Cory Bradford, a guard on the '98 team. "When Coach Henson left, the program was going downhill. When Coach Kruger got there, he pretty much was picking things up from scratch."

Kruger took the Illini to the second round of the NCAA Tournament his first season. But it was the following season when Illinois tied for the Big Ten title that is his legacy.

"That was the year he stabilized Illinois as a top-20 program,” said Illinois State assistant Rob Judson, an assistant under Kruger at Illinois.

Picked to finish seventh in preseason polls, Illinois shocked prognosticators to share the Big Ten title with Michigan State, the Illini's first conference title in 14 years.

Five unheralded seniors went on an improbable run that serves as a reminder to never underestimate Kruger-coached teams.

"I loved his ability with player development," said Rob Cardinal, a trainer at Illinois for 30 years. "He took a few guys who hadn't seen much action with Coach Henson, blended them in, defined a role for each, and they had a terrific senior season."

Cardinal said Kruger set high goals the day he took the job.

"I'll never forget him sitting in the very first meeting with players, talking about his vision, the role each player would play," Cardinal said. "He knew more about each player than I ever thought a coach would know. He asked players to trust in him and believe in his vision."

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