EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a three-part series on the playing and coaching career of new University of Oklahoma basketball coach Lon Kruger.
Craig Brown was Lon Kruger's first recruit at Florida. From Steelton, Pa., a Harrisburg suburb, Brown grew up nearly 1,000 miles from Gainesville.
When he arrived on campus, Brown discovered football was the only sport Gator fans really cared about.
But the basketball program's obstacles were much deeper than apathy.
There were still aftershocks from the Norm Sloan era. Probation hampered the rebuilding process.
The campus was also in mourning over a series of murders in the summer of 1990.
"I didn't know what to expect but I didn't expect all that was going on," Brown said. "That first year you kind of had your head down. But coach Kruger always told us things would get better."
Kruger's first Florida team finished 11-17. The next two teams went to the NIT.
The fourth season — a Final Four season — was magical.
"Lon brought incredible credibility to a school where football has always dominated," said Bill Koss, who has been involved with Florida basketball for more than 40 years. "There's no question it's a football school. It always will be. But Lon was the first to really connect people with basketball."
Koss played at Florida and was a radio and television analyst for decades.
To fully appreciate the 1994 Final Four season, Koss said outsiders must be educated on the program's first 75 years which he helped chronicle in a book: Pond Birds, the history of Florida basketball. “Pond birds” is a term football coach Steve Spurrier used to describe tall, lanky basketball players.
The Gators never played in the NCAA Tournament until 1987. Sloan took the Gators to their only three NCAA Tournament appearances at the time in the late 1980s. Sloan compiled 235 wins during two different stints at Florida, but he also put the program in a deep hole.
An NCAA investigation placed the basketball program on two years probation for extra benefits, recruiting, transportation and unethical violations. Don DeVoe spent four years trying to revive the program but failed, compiling a 53-64 record.
"When coach Kruger arrived the program was in disarray," said Jeff Guin, a student manager at Florida who later joined Kruger's Illinois staff. "It wasn't just wins and losses. It was NCAA issues. Few people came to games. No one really cared."
Koss said that's where Kruger's impact went beyond the Final Four season. Kruger was involved in the community. He spoke to students. He embraced Gator nation's love for football.
"More than any coach I've ever been around Lon makes everyone feel part of the program," Koss said. "He made Florida basketball fun."
As attendance improved, Kruger spent the next four years molding unheralded recruits and producing a team in 1993-94 that would set a then school record 29 wins.
Brown was a starting guard on that team and said players were prepared for every possible situation.
"Coach Kruger was always designing plays, coming up with new wrinkles to give us an advantage," Brown said. "He was always tweaking things. He'd come up with unique things during a game and had the ability to communicate that with his players.
"But it's also was the way he treats people. That's why we had such great chemistry. He was a door-is-always-open coach right from the start. He stressed doing things the right way. He wasn't a yeller. He wouldn't belittle you. But he got his point across."
Brown learned that lesson when he tried to dribble between his legs, the ball caroming off his leg out of bounds.
"He stopped practice and said, 'Keep it basic. That's not what we do,'" Brown said. "I got the message. He rewarded guys who did things the right way. And he wasn't just about today. He was about making a difference after we were done playing."
Only two of Kruger's six Florida teams played in the NCAA Tournament but he still owns the second best winning percentage in school history behind Billy Donovan.
Kruger's impact at Florida is overshadowed by Donovan's success the past 15 years.
Donovan has won 360 games, made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and won back-to-back national championships along with three Final Four trips.
But if it wasn't for Kruger who knows where Florida basketball would be today?
"(Rick) Pitino told Billy, 'Absolutely do not take that job. It's a football school,'" Koss said. "Billy has told me several times he would not have taken the job if Lon hadn't accomplished what he accomplished."