EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment in a seven part series on new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.
When he retires as a college basketball coach, Lon Kruger might have a second career as host of Extreme Makeover reality shows.
Kruger certainly has the resume.
Similar to resuscitation projects at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV, Kruger is being asked to restore an Oklahoma program that's coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1967.
“Lon is at his best at what he does, revitalizing programs that need to win the right way,” said UNLV senior associate athletic director D.J. Allen. “We don't live in a world that always celebrates that type of leadership and success. His story is quite amazing when you look deep into his career.
“He's been successful four out of five times. Now it's time for him to take on program No. 6. It's not sexy, but wherever Lon Kruger goes, his program wins. And he does it without any question marks how it's done. That's quite a legacy.”
Kruger inherits a program that went 27-36 in the two years since Blake Griffin left for the NBA. Convinced a change was needed, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione fired Jeff Capel four days after the 2010-11 season.
Three weeks later, Kruger was introduced as OU's coach at McCasland Field House, the arena he played in for Kansas State when he was a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year.
“Knowing what Lon is about, and the people he surrounds himself with, there's no question he'll get them back where they could win (big),” said Bill Koss, who has been involved with Florida basketball for 40 years. “It won't be a quick fix. But he'll do it the right way. And he'll turn it around. He always has.”
The Sooners also are dealing with NCAA issues. But Kruger has faced similar circumstances at his last three college jobs.
Last year, the NCAA began investigating whether one of Capel's assistants was involved with an alleged illegal loan to former OU center Tiny Gallon. The case has stalled. Gallon has refused to speak with NCAA officials. But it's hampered recruiting.
“This is a critical time for OU because of what they've gone through,” said Kansas City Chiefs play-by-play voice Mitch Holthus, who also works Big 12 basketball games. “That (investigation) put the Sooners in a tough spot.
“Lon and his staff will bring in high-caliber players. You'll see year-to-year improvement. It might take a little while, as good as Big 12 basketball is. But OU will be back on the (national) landscape soon.”
This might be Kruger's most daunting challenge, playing in a revamped 10-team league of perennial NCAA Tournament-caliber programs that will play a round-robin, 18-game league schedule.
Kansas has won seven consecutive Big 12 titles, including a national title. Texas is a perennial power. Missouri and Kansas State have undergone successful revivals.
Texas A&M and Baylor have developed into perennial NCAA Tournament contenders. Oklahoma State will have its most talented roster in coach Travis Ford's four seasons. Billy Gillispie (Texas Tech) and Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State) could rebuild quickly.
“There's no reason not to think he can't do it again,” said UNLV play-by-play voice Jon Sadler. “He probably has better facilities and resources at Oklahoma than he's had almost everywhere else with the possible exception of Florida.
“The biggest difference is the level of competition in the Big 12. It may take him a little longer to get the program up the ladder because there are so many good teams. But I think he's perfect for that situation given what's happened the past couple of years.”
Even his one “failure,” a losing record in 2½ seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, will benefit Kruger, according to Illinois State assistant Rob Judson, who was on Kruger's Illinois staff.
“There are only a handful of college coaches that have coached in the NBA,” Judson said. “The time he spent in Atlanta enlarged his vision of the game. He's always been a great coach, but that experience made him an even better coach.
“Look at his track record. Oklahoma is getting a coach that's a program builder.”
Kruger's formula is simple. Recruit high-character players who play hard and coach them up.
Most practices start with Kruger spending a couple of minutes with every player. Some he encourages. With others he throws down a challenge.
Orlando Magic media relations director Joel Glass was Florida's sports information director when Kruger inherited a similar situation two decades ago at a football school.
“There's not a single doubt, at all, he'll do the same thing (at OU),” Glass said. “He will create the right atmosphere, make the program successful and do it the right way.”
Former OU star Gar Heard, an 18-year NBA assistant who was on Kruger's staff in Atlanta, called Kruger the day he was hired in Norman.
“I told him he's the perfect fit for that situation,” Heard said. “He's a Big Eight guy from Kansas. Everything fell into place. I'm really glad he got the job and will do whatever I can to help him. We need to get that program turned around. And I think he's the guy to do it.”
Kruger has compiled a 479-304 record with 13 NCAA Tournament appearances his last 20 years as a college coach.
Kruger could join an exclusive list of Division I coaches with 500 wins as early as his debut season at OU.
“When you realize he will accomplish that while revitalizing six different programs, you have to think it might be one of the most unique and most difficult trips to 500 wins in college basketball history,” Allen said. “He's the best at what he does — revitalizing programs that need to win the right way.”