NORMAN — Lon Kruger stood Monday in the ancient gymnasium where he first played basketball almost four decades ago, looking and talking like anything but an old codger. Even if he is.
Smiling with ease. Saying all the right things without hint of a script. Getting his 20-year-old ballplayers excited for a season that's half a year away.
Call him a young soul for such an old coach. Which is only fitting, because when Kruger was a Kansas State point guard who first darkened the OU Field House door in February 1972, he was an old soul for a young ballplayer. Wise beyond his years. Heady.
For those a little bummed out that the Sooners went for safe over high risk/high reward, for experience over flash, for a commodity proven through decades rather than the flavor of the month of March, well, I'm probably not going to change your mind.
But I have to second the motion of OU president David Boren, who called Kruger “the right man at the right place at the right time.”
Kruger is 58, has been head coach at four schools a total of 25 years, has been an NCAA Tournament staple with one Final Four trip and now returns to his (conference) roots for the twilight of his career. Reminds me a little of another guy awhile back. A little younger, 54, head coach at three schools a total of 17 years, was an NCAA Tournament staple with one Final Four trip and returned to his (alma mater) roots for the twilight of his career.
Some were worried that it wouldn't work. But it turned out OK for Eddie Sutton and Oklahoma State.
“Age is just a number,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said of his new hire. “This is experience. This is expertise. This is a pedigree that is outstanding.”
I know, it's hard to shake the image of 33-year-old Shaka Smart bouncing around the Final Four practice court like a banshee, firing up his Virginia Commonwealths on Friday. That would inspire anyone.
But let's not pretend that OU got the polar opposite in Kruger, a full quarter century older than the VCU coach.
“Everybody's pretty excited,” said Sooner forward Romero Osby. “We want to win right now. Coach Kruger puts us in the best situation to do that.”
Kruger neither looks nor acts 58. Truth is, he looks not so much different from he did when Oklahomans first saw him, when Jack Hartman's early-'70s floor general was known as Lonnie. Same face, with a little gray hair, and same body build.
OU sources said Kruger told Joe C. he planned to coach at least seven more years. Kruger told us Monday that he feels great, and “I certainly expect to do it as long as Sooner fans will have us.”
And Kruger said Norman most definitely would be his last stop: “No question about that. Definitely plan on that. Love that thought, that vision, if you will. We're very much about the Midwest.”
Kruger has been all over, including the SEC and Vegas and the NBA, all places that will give you a lot of attitude. Yet he displayed little bravado Monday. There was no talk of championships past or some kind of infallible system.
“We're honored to be a part of what you have been doing for a long time,” Kruger said. “This program has great tradition.”
Kruger called it a “shared ownership plan. We're just a part of it.”
That's Midwest to the core. Kruger was self-deprecating even when talking about OU Field House memories.
“I remember very vividly the building,” Kruger said. He called it a cruel joke to return, how in 1972 the Sooners “whipped up on us.”
Uh, not so fast. On Feb. 26, 1972, Lonnie Kruger, a sophomore point guard, had 18 points and nine rebounds as Kansas State beat the Sooners 80-71.
I guess memory is the first thing to go. The rest of the package seems intact for this old coach with a young soul.
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 AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.