EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the sixth in a seven part series on new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.
Jerry Tarkanian turned a school once referred to as “Tumbleweed Tech” into a national basketball powerhouse. But when UNLV forced “Tark the Shark” to resign following a successful 19-year career, it alienated many fans.
Despite alleged NCAA violations under Tarkanian, fans were outraged UNLV President Robert Maxson forced the popular coach to resign in 1992 and former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino was signed to a secretive deal.
Over the next 14 seasons, the Runnin' Rebels posted zero NCAA Tournament wins. Maybe more revealing, apathy enveloped the program.
Lon Kruger changed that.
Hired in 2000, Kruger worked to bring back former legendary players like Larry Johnson and Greg Anthony. He also played a key role in UNLV's court being named after Tarkanian.
“He helped convince everyone to put all the strife and controversy behind and move forward,” said UNLV play-by-play broadcaster Jon Sadler. “There was a lot of animosity. One of the most important things he did was to build a bridge between the two factions.
“After Tark, the program became irrelevant on a national level. Coach Kruger made UNLV basketball relevant again.”
D.J. Allen, UNLV's senior associate director of external affairs, said Kruger's impact was remarkable, something only longtime Rebel fans can fully appreciate.
“As great as the winning was under coach Kruger, and all the NCAA Tournaments, what Runnin' Rebel fans will always celebrate coach Kruger for is what he did to bring the program back together as one,” Allen said.
“The key to that is he was secure enough to do it. With coach Kruger it's not about him. It's about what is best long-term for the success of the program.”
In 14 seasons after Tarkanian, UNLV made the NCAA Tournament only twice. Both times the Rebels were eliminated in the first round under Bill Bayno, whose legacy was having the NCAA once again levy sanctions for recruiting violations.
In Kruger's third season, he led the Rebels to the Sweet Sixteen — ironic considering it had been exactly 16 years since UNLV had won an NCAA Tournament game.
“After the glory days of Tark, the program hit a lull,” said longtime booster Wade Leavitt, who has followed the program for 40 years since he was an UNLV ball boy. “Lon not only won. He brought a level of integrity.
“He brought in good kids, good students that were involved in the community. The quality of people in the program under Lon was higher than it's been throughout the history of the program.”
Fans took notice.
Attendance soared by nearly 42 percent.
Two years ago UNLV celebrated its first sellout of 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center since 1993 during the Tarkanian era.
UNLV averaged 14,228 fans two years ago to rank in the top 20 nationally in attendance.
“Part of that was he made a better product. They were more competitive,” Leavitt said. “But he also was heavily involved in marketing the program. I mean, the guy was everywhere. He got students involved. He built interest. “
Mountain West rival Steve Fisher, who has revived San Diego State, paid Kruger the ultimate compliment.
“He is a superb basketball coach who brought respectability back to the UNLV program,” Fisher said. “He did a great job. My guess is all he did there won't be fully appreciated until he's gone. Lon is the man I would want my son to play for. He is the person you want to live next door to.”
Kruger was 161-71 during seven seasons at UNLV. The Rebels played in the NCAA Tournament four of his final five seasons. They were ranked nationally three of his final five seasons.
But talk to anyone close to UNLV's program and inevitably they'll say wins and losses and postseason appearances don't tell the entire story because of how far the program fell.
Massimino lasted only two seasons.
His replacement, former Tarkanian assistant Tim Grgurich, lasted seven games before he resigned.
Bayno briefly revived the program with NBA-caliber players like Shawn Marion. The price tag was the program was placed on probation for recruiting violations when UNLV tried to land Lamar Odom, who signed with Rhode Island.
Charlie Spoonhour, a veteran coach with a squeaky clean image, muddled through the probation years but resigned in the middle of the third season.
The following year Kruger arrived.
“There was a rebirth of Runnin' Rebel basketball,” Allen said. “We gained new fans and re-engaged with longtime fans that had lost interest. The future of UNLV basketball is bright because of the foundation built under coach Kruger and his staff.
“He always leaves programs in better shape than he found them. That's the sign of a tremendous leader. Look at where Florida was. Illinois was set up for tremendous success when Lon left for the NBA. And now UNLV is at a whole different level than when Lon took over in 2004.”