Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on new OU men's basketball coach Lon Kruger
Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock's first choice in 2000 was longtime Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo. When Izzo turned down the job, Babcock almost immediately turned to Lon Kruger.
Babcock's rationale was Kruger, who had revived men's basketball programs at Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, could do the same in the NBA. Babcock believed Kruger was a good fit for a team that featured eight players between ages 20 and 26.
Hired in April as Oklahoma basketball coach, Kruger said his inability to turn around the Hawks a decade ago is the biggest disappointment of his 28-year career.
“We were hired to come in and change that culture, and we didn't get that done,” Kruger said. “It was disappointing we didn't do what we set out to do. It was humbling as far as not getting it done and seeing (basketball) from a different perspective.”
Gar Heard, who played at Oklahoma and was an NBA assistant coach for 18 years, was on Kruger's staff in Atlanta.
“The roster wasn't very good, and it was hard to get everyone on the same page,” Heard said. “We had a lot of young kids. But we also had some veterans who had been on different teams. They didn't mesh well together.
“And he really didn't have the control he needed to turn it around the way he wanted. He didn't get the draft picks he wanted. I don't know how much management was behind him.”
Kruger discovered one major difference between coaching in college and the NBA: He didn't have the final say on personnel.
“It's different, there's no question about that,” Kruger said. “I was a little naive going into that situation. It was very much a learning experience, a very good experience other than the losing. The losing got old.”
Similar to John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Montgomery and Tim Floyd, other college coaches who failed to duplicate their college success, Kruger compiled a losing record while in the NBA.
The Hawks lost 122 losses games during Kruger's 21/2 seasons.
In contrast, he had lost only 174 games in 14 seasons at Kansas State, Illinois and Florida.
“I'm sure it was weighing on him, but he never really showed it,” Heard said. “He was always upbeat. He always came to practices and games with a positive attitude. He's always been that way.”
Jason Terry, who played a key role in the Dallas Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA title, was a second-year guard with the Hawks when Kruger was hired.