“Takes good players,” Kruger said of his knack for staging hardwood revivals. “That is at the heart of it.
“After that, as a staff, our function is to create an environment, an atmosphere, our guys love to be around.”
Kruger doesn’t claim to be a soothsayer. Says he didn’t know how successful these Sooners would be, primarily because they were so young. The rookie Woodard was handed the reins at point guard. The undersized Spangler was asked to play center in a league of rugged front courts. Clark, whose production had declined every season as a Sooner, was being counted on to cover post players and score big.
But Kruger knew one thing. That environment he has created from sea to shining desert? It was paying off.
“I did know they loved to be in the gym, they had great enthusiasm for each other,” Kruger said. “They just liked to play. That’s a good starting point. The fact that they’d win games and make progress, make shots, I didn’t know.”
He knows it now, same as we know a little more now than we did three years ago, when Joe Castiglione convinced Kruger to come back to this part of the country, one state south of where Kruger grew up in Silver Lake, Kan.
Kruger’s gentle demeanor has charmed fans and motivated players. He’s unlike any college basketball coach we’ve had around here in a long time. If ever.
“It’s funny, a lot of people ask … does he ever yell at you guys?” Neal said. “Does he ever raise his voice? He does. Mentions things multiple times.
“But he realizes the people he works with are young men. It’s really crazy how well he can, I don’t know, just understand them on that level. Understand what it takes to get the result out of the guys that he believes can be gotten out of each player.
“Obviously, there’s guys that respond well to yelling and cursing. But he’s showing it doesn’t necessarily take that.”
Kruger’s assistant coaches are similar. Little brashness in a sport that thrives on brash. Down to Earth in a profession populated by Type A personalities.
“When players believe you’re in it for them, both on and off the court, they buy in generally pretty quickly,” Kruger said. “Genuineness is a big part of that. You can’t just act like you’re doing it.”
Genuine. That’s a good word to describe Kruger. And a good word to describe his coaching. Not just at Pan Am and KSU and Illinois and Florida and UNLV. But at OU, too, where Lonnie Kruger is doing it again.
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.