Kansas State made a road trip to Salt Lake City in 1972. In those days, there was no ESPN to show highlights from nearly every conference. The Wildcats had no idea Utah was led by two future NBA players — Mike Sojourner and “Ticky” Burden.
After seeing the Utes throttle his team the first half, veteran K-State coach Jack Hartman was so frustrated, he stormed out of the locker room. He told players to figure it out for themselves.
Depending on which story you want to believe, junior point guard Lon Kruger either jumped up and began drawing X's and O's on the chalkboard or simply informed teammates adjustments needed to fix first-half problems.
“He was born to be a coach,” said Danny Beard, Kruger's roommate all four years at K-State. “He's doing exactly what God created him to do.”
Hired as Oklahoma's men's basketball coach in April, Kruger has been a head coach for nearly three decades.
Teammates describe him as the nicest guy you'll ever meet. But once he stepped on the court he was transformed almost like a superhero in a movie.
“I swear one day in practice you could literally see smoke coming out of his nose,” said teammate Bob Chipman. “It was the scariest thing I've ever seen.
“He is so intense. I've never seen anyone compete like he did every possession, every day. He's the most competitive person I've been around. And I've seen a lot of players.”
Chipman, 59, has been the head coach at Washburn (Kan.) for 32 years. He's closing in on 700 career wins.
After watching Kruger, Chipman learned not to judge players by appearances. A hotshot junior college recruit from Flint, Mich., Chipman mulled over several offers. LSU wanted him to follow Pete Maravich.
Kruger? He was a 5-foot-11 guard from Silver Lake, a rural community in Kansas.
“I wasn't that good but thought I was at the time,” Chipman said. “In preseason I couldn't take him serious. What I didn't know is he was running five miles and doing 500 pushups. When practiced started I was like, ‘Wow.' His work ethic was incredible. I've never seen anything like it.”
Kruger excelled in everything. Class valedictorian. Football star. Scratch golfer. Plus-200 bowler. Adept card player. He was drafted by the Houston Astros out of high school and by the St. Louis Cardinals out of college.
“He was one of those guys who was so good at everything it kind of made you mad,” said teammate Ernie Kusnyer. “That's why we called him ‘Slick.'”
Beard said the nickname originated because of his hair style.
“It you look at his pictures up to his senior year he had a little flattop and a little bitty piece of hair in the front he used to butch wax to make it stand up,” Beard said. “His hair was cut bald on the side but he had that little part standing up in the front.”
Beard, though, said the nickname could have applied to Kruger's multi talents.
“He could coach baseball and win. He could coach football and win,” Beard said. “In my opinion baseball was his first love. Maybe that's because you start playing baseball when you're young. But without question he's proven everywhere he's gone he can win as a basketball coach.”
Former teammates stress his ultracompetitive side was nothing like his demeanor off the court.
To help his college buddy, Kruger's UNLV teams routinely played Washburn. Most were preseason exhibition games. One year an opponent cancelled late. It was turned into a regular season game.
“He always has good defenses but one year in particular at UNLV it was the best I've seen,” Chipman said. “He teaches his teams to play together, play hard and think the game. He has a knack for team chemistry.
“His teams do it the right way. That's the beauty of Lonnie. It's the way he was as a player.”
Ernie Barrett, dubbed “Mr. Kansas State,” is 81 years old. He's been around K-State basketball as a player and athletic director, among many other duties.
Today, recruiting services identify quality players in remote areas. AAU tournaments uncover small-town heroes.
When Kruger was in high school in the late 1960s, few knew about the guard from Silver Lake.
“No one wanted him out of high school. No one,” Barrett said. “Coach Hartman had one scholarship left. He took a gamble on Lon Kruger. It turned out great for him and Kansas State. He became a coach on the floor. Coach Hartman trusted him completely.”
By the time Chipman arrived, Kruger was a junior. Chipman learned the entire offense revolved around Kruger, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year.
“It took me almost a year but I figured out the best thing to do was pass the ball to Lonnie and get out of his way,” Chipman said. “He was that good. I mean how many two-time Players of the Year were there? Danny Manning. Maybe Wayman (Tisdale)?”
Manning and Tisdale were the only three-time winners. But Kruger is one of only six other players that won it twice, joining Bryant Reeves, Bob Boozer, Dave Robisch, Mike Evans and Cliff Meely.
And that game against Utah?
Whatever adjustments the assistant coaches and Kruger made at halftime worked. The Wildcats rallied for a 65-59 win.
“No matter what sport it was, he would outthink you,” Chipman said. “It was humbling. He was kind of a natural but his concentration was off the charts. We all knew he would become a coach. You could tell way back then. There was no question about it.”