NORMAN – In the gymnasiums and on the ballfields of Kansas' rolling hills, Lon Kruger learned to shoot the ball and lead teams and compete in multiple sports and dissect schemes and run ultra-successful programs.
But somewhere along the path in Silver Lake, where Kruger was raised, and Kansas State University, where he played for and then succeeded iconic coach Jack Hartman, Kruger's basketball education lapsed. There's a hole in his hardwood apprentice.
Kruger never learned to yell. Never learned to scream. Never learned the power of negative reinforcement.
As Kruger's first OU basketball season nears completion, either Wednesday in the Big 12 Tournament or, if not, most certainly Thursday, it's time to marvel at Kruger's most attractive trait.
The guy always is positive. And I don't mean in front of cameras or talking to those with a notepad in our hip pocket.
“That's what I would respond to,” Kruger said. “That's the way I would want my sons and daughters treated. For us, that's the only way to do it. That's our commitment to 'em.”
A friend of mine works the stat crew at Lloyd Noble Center. Sits right off the OU bench. And he says even in the worst of times, Kruger's persona does not waver during games. The guy is upbeat, encouraging and positive.
“I've never seen him change his emotional pattern,” said Sooner point guard Sam Grooms. “He's the same way inside the locker room.
“He might yell once or twice, but that just makes you want to work harder for him. Gives you the same push every day.”
Aside from the yell-free NBA, where a screaming coach would face mutiny before the first TV timeout, you have to go far down the food chain to find such a positive coach.
Far past high school. State Fair Arena was full of sideline screamers over the weekend, for the small-school state basketball tournament. The same will be true this week, when the bigger schools take the stage.
I guess you have to go down to the youth leagues to find a Kruger clone. “Not even then, sometimes,” Grooms said. “You see coaches with kids six or seven, screaming, ‘You gotta make that shot!' Coach Kruger's way is a little different.”
He comes by it honest. Kruger certainly didn't pattern himself after Hartman, a great, great coach but a butt-chewer of great repute.
Instead, Kruger got the greatest of all blessing. Good raising.
Kruger said his demeanor and coaching philosophy comes “more from my parents (a mailman and a homemaker) than anyone else. Always positive, always encouraging, reinforcing confidence.
“Being positive is what we're going to do. Be constructive in our criticism.”
There are different ways to raise kids, and there are different ways to coach a team. At OU, Kelvin Sampson was a yeller; Jeff Capel and Billy Tubbs were somewhere middle ground. Bud Wilkinson rarely, if ever, screamed. Barry Switzer did a little. Bob Stoops does a lot.
Kruger's way is Kruger's way, and it's not going to change, just because he faces another rebuilding job, here 41 years after he first played K-State basketball.
“Different philosophy,” Kruger admitted. “Ours probably leans toward the positive end for sure.
“But that's OK. It serves us well.
We've gotta keep challenging our guys. We're trying to change things. You gotta do things different.”
Does he ever yell?
“Not publicly,” Kruger said. “Certainly in practice, in meetings, we're going to be critical. But hopefully that's constructive as well.
“These guys I know want to win. This game is fair. Do the things you need to to win, and you'll win.
It's an emotional game always.”
It's been a trying season for the Sooners, no doubt. Lose to Texas A&M on Wednesday in Kansas City, and OU suffers its third straight losing season, for the first time since the mid-1960s.
But interesting seeds have been planted. A culture change.
“My high school coach was a big-time yeller and cusser,” said OU's Romero Osby. “So was my AAU coach.
“I think (Kruger,) he's different. Coach has been successful doing it the way he's done it, uplifting his players constantly. It's going to be positive. That's what makes him so special as a coach.”
Special? Perhaps. Different? By a mile.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.