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.”