MANHATTAN, Kan. — In the north rafters of Bramlage Coliseum, Lon Kruger's No. 12 hangs alongside Bob Boozer's, Ernie Barrett's and other Kansas State legends.
Decades after his playing days ended, Kruger, now at Oklahoma, coached against his alma mater for the first time in Manhattan on Saturday night.
Carl Gerlach, who works for a printing company and is the Mayor of Overland Park, Kan., was Kruger's teammate in the early 1970s. Gerlach planned to cheer for Kruger when his name was announced but neither coach was introduced during pregame ceremonies, a Big 12 policy.
“It certainly was a strange dichotomy,” Gerlach said. “We all like Lon as our friend but we're K-State fans. I'll always support Lon Kruger, one of the most competitive, nicest people you'll ever meet. I'm even thinking about going to Lawrence Wednesday night (when OU plays the Jayhawks).”
Coincidentally, Saturday's game was Legends weekend, the one game each year Kansas State schedules an alumni gathering.
Keith Amerson, from California, played for Kruger in the late 1980s. Amerson now lives in New York City. He works for a foundation for children with autism.
“Seeing his jersey in the rafters and seeing him on the visitor's bench after leaving such a legacy here, to now coach against them was really strange,” Amerson said. “His message was to always take moments and make them special but to honor the past, players who played before you.
“I know how much he loves K-State. But I also know how competitive he is. What's ironic is the current visitor's bench used to be the home bench until they flip flopped a few years ago. He actually sat on the same end he always did when he was here.”
Not everyone associated with K-State has fond Kruger memories. Some remain upset Kruger left for Florida in 1990 after four years as head coach, all NCAA Tournament seasons.
Monty Thompson, a 21-year-old senior from Mound City, Mo., partially blames a lengthy K-State basketball drought on Kruger's departure.
“Loyal K-State fans cheer him because he played and coached here but he left K-State in a very bad situation,” Thompson said. “After he left we had 20 years of dark ages of basketball. We lost all the recruits. We struggled to get a really good coach.
“K-State slipped from being one of the best programs in the nation to being irrelevant.”
Kruger and assistant coach Steve Henson, who played for Kruger and also wore the No. 12 jersey at K-State, stopped briefly at the alumni gathering about an hour before tipoff.
“It's definitely a little different but it was good to see a lot of people, some we haven't seen in years,” Henson said. “But it is strange to be playing in this building and be playing against the Wildcats.”
Barrett, known as Mr. K-State, said it's good to have Kruger back in the Midwest. Barrett was K-State's athletic director when Jack Hartman had one scholarship left in 1970.
“Jack was scratching his head. He didn't know what to do,” Barrett said. “At the very last minute he told me, ‘I think I'm going to give it to that kid from Silver Lake (Kan.) the last scholarship.' What a blessing that turned out to be.”