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New OU coach Lon Kruger known for righting programs, running a clean ship

by Jenni Carlson Published: April 2, 2011

Joe Castiglione had to be impressed by what Lon Kruger has done during his coaching career.

But just as important to the Oklahoma athletic director had to have been what his new men's basketball coach hasn't done.

Kruger has never run afoul of the NCAA.

With an ongoing investigation looming over the Sooners only a couple years after the NCAA slapped the program with sanctions for Kelvin Sampson era violations, Joe C. had to hire a guy who would run a clean ship. Winning is vital. Generating interest is important. But that has to happen without giving the NCAA reason to station an investigator permanently at the Lloyd Noble Center.

Castiglione took no chances. He went out and got Mr. Clean.

Need to smooth things out with the NCAA? Need to get a program derailed by investigations and uncertainty back on track? Need to do it the right way?

Kruger is your man.

He's righted programs reeling from NCAA investigations not once, not twice but thrice.

Kruger did it first at Florida. When he left Kansas State, his alma mater, for the Sunshine State in 1990, folks in both places wondered why.

Why would Kruger leave a good program for one in shambles?

Florida was on probation, the result of former star Vernon Maxwell hiring an agent when he was only a junior, former coach Norm Sloan buying an airline ticket for a player and a host of other maladies. There was team unrest and grand jury investigations and drug abuse allegations.

Almost four years to the day after Kruger took the job at Florida, he took the Gators to the Final Four. What's more, there was nary an NCAA violation to be had.

Kruger moved to Illinois a few years later, and while the situation in Champaign wasn't nearly as bad as the one in Gainesville had been, the Illini were languishing. They were in a decade-long slump exacerbated by NCAA sanctions.

Allegations that an assistant had offered a player $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer brought NCAA bloodhounds to campus in 1990. While those charges didn't stick, the investigation uncovered other violations. Three years of probation followed, and when Kruger took over six years later, Illinois still hadn't recovered.

Kruger quickly turned the Illini into one of the Big Ten's top programs, but he did so even though he never got a hold on the Chicago-area recruiting scene.

Some believe it was a downfall that kept Illinois from reaching greater heights under Kruger.

Others believe it was intentional.

Recruiting in the Windy City has proved to be unsavory business. There are street agents. There are pay-for-play deals. It's a little like wading into a cesspool. Even if you wear boots and hip waders, the slightest slip will leave you dirty.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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