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Oklahoma basketball: How Joe Castiglione lured Lon Kruger to Oklahoma

The Oklahoma brass convinced Lon Kruger to coach the Sooners, and now he's on the verge of NCAA history. Kruger will likely become the first coach ever to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament.
by Berry Tramel Published: March 16, 2013

Joe Castiglione heard the knock at the hotel suite door and grew alarmed.

The OU athletic director had worked hard to get Lon Kruger to meet with President David Boren and a couple of OU regents. Two years ago this month, Castiglione zeroed in on Kruger as the solution to all that ailed Sooner basketball. But Kruger twice had rejected Castiglione's advances.

Joe C. wouldn't take no for an answer. So there they sat, in that Houston hotel suite, with Boren working his charm and Castiglione growing confident Kruger was about to accept the challenge.

Then the knock. No telling what Castiglione feared. Pesky media? The Las Vegas mafia come to cart their coach back to UNLV?

Joe C. looked through the peephole and saw nothing. Maybe it was kids fooling around.

Then another knock. Joe C. looked through the peephole again. Saw nothing. This time, Castiglione cracked open the door.

There stood a small woman. “Turn down?” she asked.

Castiglione was confused. What? “Turn down?” she asked again.

Finally, Castiglione figured it out. The housekeeper was asking if he needed turndown service.

“No, ma'am,” Joe C. said abruptly. “I've already been through it twice. I'm not going to let it happen again.”

The NCAA basketball committee will announce its 68-team field Sunday afternoon, and the Sooners are virtually certain to be back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2009.

In that hotel suite, Kruger agreed to coach OU basketball, and now he's on the verge of NCAA history. Kruger will become the first coach ever to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament.

What Kruger did at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and Nevada-Las Vegas, he's doing at OU.

“He really is one of the most successful change agents in college basketball history,” Castiglione said. “He felt motivated to take on another challenge.”

But only with plenty of nudges from Joe C.

When he fired Jeff Capel in March 2011, after a second straight disastrous OU season, Castiglione targeted a few prospects and quickly settled on Kruger as his primary. But Kruger wasn't interested.

“Lot of respect for Oklahoma and the history of it, but we were really comfortable with what we were doing,” Kruger said of his UNLV job.

“We really enjoyed the people. When you know what you have, there's value in that. We loved the city. Friends and families coming through all the time.”

Kruger wasn't playing hard-to-get.

Kruger had just moved into a house he and his wife, Barbara, had built. His daughter and her family had recently moved to Las Vegas. His son used Vegas as a base for his basketball career.

Plus, the UNLV program was flourishing. When Kruger was hired in 2004, the Runnin' Rebels hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since reaching the 1991 Final Four and had made the bracket only twice.

But in Kruger's third season, he coached Vegas to the Sweet 16. Another NCAA victory followed in 2008. The Rebels made the tournament four times in a five-year span.

Which is why Castiglione worked so hard to entice Kruger.

At UNLV, Kruger had rebuilt community relations. The same touch was needed in Norman.

“The University of Oklahoma was looking for an exceptional leader,” Castiglione said. “We really felt like he would be a great fit. It kept coming back to me, the right person at the right time. Just fits Oklahoma to what we want to do.”

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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