NORMAN — As the final shot went up in the OU-Baylor game, Bears coach Scott Drew bounced around like a kangaroo on the sideline before falling to his back.
Less than 90 feet away, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger stood solid as a rock.
For the first time since Blake Griffin left Norman, the ever-steady Kruger has made OU basketball relevant again. The Sooners are second in the conference, and if the NCAA Tournament started today, they'd be a shoo-in for the Big Dance.
Lon Kruger's rebuilding story started at Kansas State, the team the Sooners face at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Kansas State is where Kruger first came on the scene as a gentle Midwestern man, where he first showed his knowledge of the game as a All-Big Eight player who eventually returned as a conquering yet mild-mannered coach. As he rebuilt one program after another, people who worked close to him began to see a common theme.
Lon Kruger puts others first.
Players see it and it puts them at ease. Oklahoma senior Romero Osby said Kruger makes him comfortable because he knows his coach isn't dwelling on what happened five possessions ago. He's there, in the moment, trying to coach them to victory.
Among the coaching fraternity and Kruger's faithful followers, no one is surprised Kruger's kind heart and basketball smarts are quickly rebuilding another program.
It's that knowledge and gentle demeanor that people say makes Lon Kruger a different kind of coach.
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He grew up the son of a mailman and a homemaker, raised among four brothers and a sister in Silver Lake, Kan.
He learned at a young age to never talk about himself, to ask about others and to put them at ease. To this day, in conversation, Kruger rarely says the word “I”.
He carried those values from job to job — rebuilding Pan American, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.
“He is genuinely and sincerely interested in others,” said Bill Koss, a Fox Sports analyst for Florida basketball. “In order to have successful basketball teams that are centered around the concept of team, then the players have to believe that the coach is really interested in them. That's where Lon starts with everything in life.
“He's a very fine human being and he cares about others. In today's world you think, ‘Can someone really be that genuine and that sincere?' The more someone gets to know them the more they recognize that he truly is a leader in that regard.”
Kruger also knows how to make people comfortable — in a game or out. He rarely raises his voice. Claps his hands a lot. Rarely has an irate gesture.
Watch him during a game after a possession with a mistake. Sometimes Kruger furrows his brow and his forehead creases. Sometimes he slightly sticks out his lower jaw. Rarely, he'll shout. That's as far as it goes.
During Oklahoma's practice, Kruger, usually dressed in a pair of red sweatpants, will quicken his stride when he means business but as soon as he reaches his group of players, he's back to clapping his hands and saying something stern with a sense of encouragement and always a load of knowledge.
“The guys around him feel comfortable,” said Jeff Guin, a former basketball manager for Kruger at Florida and who later joined Kruger's Illinois staff. “Some coaches when they coach, you can tell the kids are tense and they're worried about making mistakes. He just gets them to go out and play. At the same time, it's not that the kids are looking over the shoulder on what to do next. Coach has already taught them what to do.”
Kruger's ability to rebuild comes from more than just the team accepting him. He also accepts the team. D.J. Allen, a communications director at UNLV, said Kruger looked at what players he has, what strengths they provided and determined the positions he could put them in to be successful.
Allen was so amazed at Kruger's ability to rebuild, he wrote a book with him about it. Kruger took Florida from being ecstatic about making it to the NIT all the way to the program's first Final Four. He set Illinois on a steady course for success. He turned UNLV from being an NIT team to an NCAA Sweet Sixteen team.
Koss said: “A lot of people tend to focus on weaknesses and say, ‘Well you know, this person has this shortcoming and that shortcoming.' I don't think Lon sees shortcomings.”
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Kruger smiled as he watched his team run a play during a recent practice. That's how Kruger looks most of practice.
At the end of the practice, he chatted with fans who had made their way to watch the Sooners practice.
In a day of reduced access and availability, Kruger and his team are available for all to watch. He gathers with his team at the end of practice as they say a prayer, watches them shake hands with fans and then follows.
Kruger thanks people for coming, diverting attention from himself.
“Need anything?” he says.
“He's the same guy, I'm telling you,” Koss said of the coach. “Lon Kruger hasn't changed one iota. He's the same grounded, down-to-earth, interested in others, only sees the positive things guy. I'm older than Lon and I'd still like to grow up and be like Lon.”