NORMAN — On a day that was all about talk, three words told you all you need to know about the new era of Oklahoma men's basketball.
“Practices are open.”
I can't be sure if several hundred folks inside McCasland Field House gasped when new Sooner coach Lon Kruger said that Monday afternoon, or if that was just me.
Open practices? Not just during the offseason? Not only for the first couple weeks of the season?
All the time?
“Any time, you can come out and watch,” Kruger told the crimson-clad masses during his formal introduction. “I know you're going to have suggestions later on. You might want to come out now and give us those suggestions up front, then you can have the credit or the blame or however it works out.”
Had Bob Stoops not been in the front row where I could see him, I would've guessed the Sooner football coach would've stroked out at the thought.
This degree of openness isn't the norm for most big-time college coaches at high-profile programs. Most of them would rather give you a spare key and a map to their house than open their practices.
Few of them allow media inside, even on a limited basis.
Even fewer coaches allow fans. They think spies are everywhere, cell phone cameras are recording every play, and state secrets are sure to be splashed across the Internet if they let the Average Joe and Jenni into practice.
But now, any time you want to head out to the Lloyd Noble Center and see what Lon and fellas are doing, you're more than welcome.
“We've always done it,” Kruger said of having open practices. “We have no secrets.”
This is not normal stuff, people. A college coach professing that he has no secrets is like a pyromaniac saying he has no matches.
But Kruger seems to be more than open to openness. He wants to bring back former players. He wants to engage past coaches. He even plans to have Billy Tubbs at practice on a regular basis.
Still, it's one thing to embrace the program's history. It's quite another to have an open-door policy when the Sooners are trying to work on a plan to hang with the Longhorns or beat the Jayhawks.
Kruger has his motives for opening practice, of course, but they're all good ones.
For starters, giving folks a chance to see the team at work softens the ground a bit for both the fans and the media.
“When you guys watch them work, then you'll like what they're doing and you'll know they're getting after it,” Kruger said. “If we screw up a time or two, maybe you'll say, ‘Well, they're going to get there.'”
There's also a benefit to the players. Kruger suspects there'll be a group of a dozen or so fans who attend pretty much every practice, but then some days, there will be groups or teams that come and push the total into the hundreds.
No matter the number, there will always be a buzz in the stands.
“You've got to focus between the lines,” Kruger said. “You can't be distracted.
“If you're going to be distracted by (people at practice), certainly you're going to be distracted in Austin or Manhattan or Lawrence or wherever it is that we're lining up.”
But as much as anything, this is outreach, plain and simple.
Interest in OU men's basketball has fallen off a cliff in the past couple years. Thousands of empty seats were the norm at the Lloyd Noble Center, unless a marquee opponent like Kansas was in town.
“We had more Kansas fans than Oklahoma fans,” Sooner big man Andrew Fitzgerald said.
Sad, but true.
Back-to-back losing seasons were the main culprit for the apathy, but for the interest to go from the heights of the Blake Griffin Era to the depths of this past season, it signaled something deeper. This program has failed to connect with the community.
Kruger is working to change that by opening practice.
“It's a way to build fans, a way to have a lot of people come in to see who we are individually,” Fitzgerald said.
Transfer swingman Romero Osby said, “That makes them feel like they're closer to us. Hopefully, that equals out to more fans being at the games.”
Both players look forward to interacting with fans after practice, signing autographs and taking pictures.
“Come tomorrow,” Osby said. “Come check us out.”
The Sooners are doing offseason workouts today and Wednesday, and yes, they are open to the public.
“We love having people around,” Kruger said.
Turns out, the welcome mat OU rolled out Monday wasn't only for Kruger.