NORMAN — As the final shot went up in the OU-Baylor game, Bears coach Scott Drew bounced around like a kangaroo on the sideline before falling to his back.
Less than 90 feet away, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger stood solid as a rock.
For the first time since Blake Griffin left Norman, the ever-steady Kruger has made OU basketball relevant again. The Sooners are second in the conference, and if the NCAA Tournament started today, they'd be a shoo-in for the Big Dance.
Lon Kruger's rebuilding story started at Kansas State, the team the Sooners face at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Kansas State is where Kruger first came on the scene as a gentle Midwestern man, where he first showed his knowledge of the game as a All-Big Eight player who eventually returned as a conquering yet mild-mannered coach. As he rebuilt one program after another, people who worked close to him began to see a common theme.
Lon Kruger puts others first.
Players see it and it puts them at ease. Oklahoma senior Romero Osby said Kruger makes him comfortable because he knows his coach isn't dwelling on what happened five possessions ago. He's there, in the moment, trying to coach them to victory.
Among the coaching fraternity and Kruger's faithful followers, no one is surprised Kruger's kind heart and basketball smarts are quickly rebuilding another program.
It's that knowledge and gentle demeanor that people say makes Lon Kruger a different kind of coach.
* * *
He grew up the son of a mailman and a homemaker, raised among four brothers and a sister in Silver Lake, Kan.
He learned at a young age to never talk about himself, to ask about others and to put them at ease. To this day, in conversation, Kruger rarely says the word “I”.
He carried those values from job to job — rebuilding Pan American, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.
“He is genuinely and sincerely interested in others,” said Bill Koss, a Fox Sports analyst for Florida basketball. “In order to have successful basketball teams that are centered around the concept of team, then the players have to believe that the coach is really interested in them. That's where Lon starts with everything in life.
“He's a very fine human being and he cares about others. In today's world you think, ‘Can someone really be that genuine and that sincere?' The more someone gets to know them the more they recognize that he truly is a leader in that regard.”
Kruger also knows how to make people comfortable — in a game or out. He rarely raises his voice. Claps his hands a lot. Rarely has an irate gesture.