“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.”