NORMAN – We all had heard about Lon Kruger.
Old-timers remember him as Lonnie, Jack Hartman’s point guard at Kansas State 40 years ago. Also remember him, along with the young-timers, as a good coach. Good schools kept hiring Kruger. He must be a good coach, right?
But we had no clue how good. We know now.
Kruger’s Sooners are one of college basketball’s success stories. A year after a surprise trip to the NCAA Tournament, OU again has far exceeded expectations. Kruger lost his three leading scorers, plus his starting point guard, off the 2013 NCAA Tournament team. Yet the Sooners are 20-8, ranked 25th in the coaches poll and might finish second in the Big 12 if they win out, which they will be favored to do, starting with the Texas Longhorns at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“He’s not appreciated across the country for what he does,” said OU senior Tyler Neal.
This is nothing new for Kruger. He’s done this all across America and across 30 years. Pan American. K-State. Illinois. Florida. Nevada-Las Vegas. Now OU. The script does not change. Kruger takes over a program in some sort of disarray, and in a short amount of time, basketball is thriving again.
“He is the perfect guy at the perfect time” in Norman, said Kansas coach Bill Self, after his Jayhawks survived the Sooners 83-75 Monday night in Lawrence. “He can really coach.
“I had the privilege of following him at Illinois. I know first-hand how those (Illini) kids were trained, and I know first-hand what a class guy he is. I think there wouldn’t be very many guys in America (better) to follow in a coaching job than Lon. He is great for our league and certainly one of the better coaches in America.”
Kruger took Kansas State to the doorstep of the Final Four and took Florida across that threshold. But this season ranks among Kruger’s best coaching jobs.
In 15 Big 12 games, OU has been the underdog in 11. Go back and read that again. Las Vegas odds have favored the Sooners only four times in conference play. But the Sooners are 9-6 in the Big 12.
All that with a team starting three sophomores and one freshman. The three double-digit scorers from last season – Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M’Baye – plus point guard Sam Grooms are gone.
No matter. Kruger has fashioned a team that has won in Austin, Waco and Stillwater. A team that made up deficits of 11 points in the first half and nine points in the second half to take leads at Kansas.
“The guy’s just a genius,” said Oklahoma senior Cam Clark, who averages 15.3 points a game, more than double his average of last season. “He’s been doing this all his life. He never steered us wrong. We just all pay attention to it and buy in. It’s been paying off.”
And the future is bright. All these young guys, such as Buddy Hield and Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard and Frank Booker. With Kruger at the helm. OU basketball is in its best shape since the Kelvin Sampson heyday.
“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.