How Lon Kruger helped revive Illinois basketball

by Michael Baldwin Published: July 13, 2011
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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

That '98 Illinois team wasn't a national power. The Illini were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They finished 23-10. But they proved that underdogs can shock the world.

“I loved how he listened to the players,” Cardinal said. “He did a great job of teaching and coaching. But I really liked how he always had time to listen to them, on or off the court. There always seemed to be a partnership with him and his players.”

That partnership was demonstrated the following year when Matt Heldman, the '98 team captain, died in a car accident. Kruger loaded players on a bus and drove them to Heldman's hometown for the visitation.

To honor Heldman, Kruger created the Matto Award, which is given each year to the player who best displays hustle. The award has remained under Bill Self and Bruce Weber.

"Lon Kruger is the most professional individual I've ever come across," said Illinois associate athletic director Michael Thomas, who played for Henson. "He brought professionalism and a level of integrity to the program that is second to none."

The '98 team didn't feature a roster full of future NBA players. Bradford, who has played the past 11 years overseas, is the only one to have an extensive pro career. Jerry Hester also played overseas in Poland, Israel, England and Serbia.

"Lou Henson had a great run, but Coach Kruger put them back in the national spotlight," said Jeff Guin, a student manager at Florida under Kruger who joined his staff as an administrative assistant at Illinois. "After that season, Illinois remained a factor in the national picture."

The win over Indiana was played on a Tuesday night. The Illini needed No. 11 Purdue to beat No. 10 Michigan State five days later to tie for the Big Ten title.

Kruger invited the entire team over to his house to watch the Boilermakers defeat the Spartans 99-96 in overtime on his big screen TV.

“I was more nervous today than at any point during the year,” Kruger was quoted. “Sitting there watching, kind of helpless, I don't know how fans do it.”

A radio analyst for Illinois games, Hester said Big Ten championship rings inscribed with the words "focus" and "trust" demonstrated how that 1998 team overachieved.

"That was an amazing team, an amazing season," Hester said. "Doing some radio, fans sometimes will come up and tell me that was one of their favorite teams of all time because of how hard we played. A lot of that was due to how Coach Kruger coached us."



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