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Kansas State launched Lon Kruger's coaching career

BY MIKE BALDWIN, Staff Writer, Modified: July 11, 2011 at 10:33 pm •  Published: July 11, 2011

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a seven-part series on the playing and coaching career of new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.

Lon Kruger's first big-time national signing was a two-for-one coup.

Kruger hired Moberly (Mo.) basketball coach Dana Altman. When Moberly star Mitch Richmond followed his junior college coach to Kansas State, Kruger revived his alma mater's program and catapulted his career.

Voted the best player through Kansas State's first 100 seasons, Richmond led K-State to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, highlighted by an Elite Eight finish his senior year.

Nearly three decades later, Richmond remains the best player Kruger has ever coached.

“It's hard to choose one player over another,” Kruger said. “But given the results, and given his NBA career, Mitch was great. It wasn't just statistically. He loved to play. He loved to compete. He was a special player.”

Steve Henson, who would become an assistant coach under Kruger for nearly a decade, was a freshman and sophomore during Richmond's two seasons. Henson helped continue the run with two more NCAA appearances, the first time in school history the Wildcats made four consecutive trips to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“It shows if you have good players you have a lot better chance getting the results you want,” Kruger said. “Mitch was the key guy. Steve Henson. Charles Bledsoe. Will Scott. Just go down the list. Those guys really meshed well together.

“But Mitch was at the core of all that. His work ethic was huge to the program.”

The work ethic was similar to his coach's principles. Kruger learned those from his parents.

Kruger's father was a mailman. His mother raised six kids, including five boys.

Ultra competitive, complemented by a charitable off-the-court personality, Kruger has led four schools to the NCAA Tournament.

Hired in April to revive Oklahoma's program, Kruger can become the first coach to record an NCAA Tournament win at five different schools.

But there was a time when Kruger's coaching career could have been delayed.

Kruger was a shortstop drafted by the Houston Astros out of high school, then the St. Louis Cardinals out of college.

He chose to give the NBA a shot. Ernie Kusnyer, Kruger's teammate, recalled his buddy being invited to the Detroit Pistons training camp.

“He probably should have made the Pistons, but they didn't keep him, so he decided to go to Pittsburg (Kan.) and get his master's and coach,” Kusnyer said. “I'm thinking, ‘You have a chance to play in the NBA and you want to go coach?' There wasn't much money in coaching in those days.”

It's a decision that launched a career that's produced 548 wins — 479 in college, 69 in the NBA.

K-State athletic director Larry Travis also made a decision pivotal to Kruger's career.

Even though Kruger was a K-State legend, his only head coaching experience was four years building a fledgling Pan American program in Texas.

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