Joe Castiglione heard the knock at the hotel suite door and grew alarmed.
The OU athletic director had worked hard to get Lon Kruger to meet with President David Boren and a couple of OU regents. Two years ago this month, Castiglione zeroed in on Kruger as the solution to all that ailed Sooner basketball. But Kruger twice had rejected Castiglione's advances.
Joe C. wouldn't take no for an answer. So there they sat, in that Houston hotel suite, with Boren working his charm and Castiglione growing confident Kruger was about to accept the challenge.
Then the knock. No telling what Castiglione feared. Pesky media? The Las Vegas mafia come to cart their coach back to UNLV?
Joe C. looked through the peephole and saw nothing. Maybe it was kids fooling around.
Then another knock. Joe C. looked through the peephole again. Saw nothing. This time, Castiglione cracked open the door.
There stood a small woman. “Turn down?” she asked.
Castiglione was confused. What? “Turn down?” she asked again.
Finally, Castiglione figured it out. The housekeeper was asking if he needed turndown service.
“No, ma'am,” Joe C. said abruptly. “I've already been through it twice. I'm not going to let it happen again.”
The NCAA basketball committee will announce its 68-team field Sunday afternoon, and the Sooners are virtually certain to be back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2009.
In that hotel suite, Kruger agreed to coach OU basketball, and now he's on the verge of NCAA history. Kruger will become the first coach ever to take five schools to the NCAA Tournament.
What Kruger did at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and Nevada-Las Vegas, he's doing at OU.
“He really is one of the most successful change agents in college basketball history,” Castiglione said. “He felt motivated to take on another challenge.”
But only with plenty of nudges from Joe C.
When he fired Jeff Capel in March 2011, after a second straight disastrous OU season, Castiglione targeted a few prospects and quickly settled on Kruger as his primary. But Kruger wasn't interested.
“Lot of respect for Oklahoma and the history of it, but we were really comfortable with what we were doing,” Kruger said of his UNLV job.
“We really enjoyed the people. When you know what you have, there's value in that. We loved the city. Friends and families coming through all the time.”
Kruger wasn't playing hard-to-get.
Kruger had just moved into a house he and his wife, Barbara, had built. His daughter and her family had recently moved to Las Vegas. His son used Vegas as a base for his basketball career.
Plus, the UNLV program was flourishing. When Kruger was hired in 2004, the Runnin' Rebels hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since reaching the 1991 Final Four and had made the bracket only twice.
But in Kruger's third season, he coached Vegas to the Sweet 16. Another NCAA victory followed in 2008. The Rebels made the tournament four times in a five-year span.
Which is why Castiglione worked so hard to entice Kruger.
At UNLV, Kruger had rebuilt community relations. The same touch was needed in Norman.
“The University of Oklahoma was looking for an exceptional leader,” Castiglione said. “We really felt like he would be a great fit. It kept coming back to me, the right person at the right time. Just fits Oklahoma to what we want to do.”
So Castiglione called Kruger, after informing UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood, and made his pitch. They had a nice conversation. Kruger said he would get back to Joe C.
Kruger's answer was thanks, but no thanks.
Castiglione was undeterred. He flew out to meet Kruger face to face, seeking to build a relationship with the coach he knew only superficially, mostly from old Big Eight days, when Kruger coached at K-State and Castiglione was a Missouri administrator.
Again, a nice chat. Again, no thanks.
At that point, Joe C. was torn. He sensed a sliver of hope that Kruger could be persuaded to take the job, but Castiglione also had to keep the search going in other directions.
“It's a delicate balance, dealing with the reality of what could occur,” Castiglione said.
Joe C. chose aggression over caution. He went after Kruger again.
Castiglione doesn't claim to know what finally piqued Kruger's interest, and Kruger offers little insight himself. But the nature of Castiglione's courtship offers clues.
“We clearly demonstrated we were serious about changing the direction of our basketball program,” Castiglione said.
Joe C. said his mission was to “build trust in the relationship, in a compressed time frame. We had to convince him we were people of our word.”
The Sooners actually came calling at a very opportune time.
Kruger had rejected inquires from Southern Cal, Oregon and Utah the previous year or two. But Nevada's governor had recently proposed a 17 percent budget cut for higher education, which had everyone associated with UNLV a little skittish.
OU eventually offered a big-time contract, $2.2 million annually over seven years, a substantial raise from Vegas.
And Kruger also felt the pull back to Middle America. He grew up just outside Topeka, in Silver Lake, Kan., and his wife is from rural Kansas, too.
“It's who we are,” Kruger said. “Small town, friendly people. Principled people. People who care about others.”
Kruger has three brothers and a sister who all live in the Topeka/Kansas City region. Coming to Oklahoma got the Krugers closer to home.
So when Castiglione came at Kruger a third time, this time the answer was maybe. Kruger flew to Houston, Boren flew in from Washington, D.C., and Castiglione started feeling a whole lot better.
“You know how convincing he can be,” Joe C. said of Boren. “I know how convincing he can be, because I experienced it myself.”
Now Kruger is a Sooner, OU is about to end a discouraging March Madness drought and the knock on the door is nothing but opportunity.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.