By Michael Kinney
Before Lon Kruger ever landed at the University of Oklahoma in 2011, he had already put together an illustrious coaching career. It included multiple trips to the NCAA tournament and a Final Four berth.
However, the decade he spent in Norman as the skipper of the men’s basketball team wasn’t so much to add to his own resume. It was more of a reclamation project for a program that had been in shambles.
That project came to an end last week when Kruger announced he was retiring and ending his coaching career after 39 years.
Kruger said it was a combination of things that brought him and his wife Barb to this moment. Wanting to spend more time with his grandkids and his son, Kevin, getting the head coaching job at UNLV were important factors.
But it was also the death of a former assistant coach that really sparked the idea that was time to hang up his coaching hat.
“We knew it was going to come to an end at some point. We didn’t expect it to be right now. But I guess, quite frankly, in all transparency, when Coach [Lew] Hill passed a couple months ago, that hit hard,” Kruger said. “So that got Barb and I probably talking more seriously about it. And then, you know, we started thinking about how we wanted to spend [retirement]. We’re fortunate enough to have good health. And again, we enjoyed every day, and the grandkids were a big talk, no question about that.”
Kruger announced his retirement March 25. It came just three days after the Sooners came to an end with a loss to No. 1 Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.
Throughout his three-and-a-half decades as a Division I head coach, Kruger proved to be one of the most dependable coaches in college basketball. He was the first coach to take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament and is the only coach to win an NCAA Tournament game with five programs.
Kruger is also the only coach since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to take four programs to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
Kruger concludes his collegiate coaching career with a 674-432 (.609) overall record, including a 195-128 (.604) performance in his 10 years at Oklahoma. Kruger’s 674 Division I wins are the 27th most all-time and were the 10th most among active coaches at the time of his retirement.
Kruger’s teams reached 20 NCAA Tournaments, advancing to the Sweet 16 five times and clinching Final Four berths in 1994 (Florida) and 2016 (Oklahoma).
“It’s anything but easy to sum up the career achievements and impact of Lon Kruger the basketball coach and person in just a handful of sentences,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “The tremendous success he enjoyed on the court over the last four decades, the meaningful mentorship role he served with players and staff, his dedication to trying to improve the lives of others — it’s a career he should certainly be proud of and that people should really take the time to study and appreciate. His track record of successfully rebuilding programs everywhere he coached is made even more impressive when considering how he did it.”
Kruger became the 14th head coach when he took over on April 1, 2011. At the time men’s basketball had become an afterthought after going 27-36 (.429) in the two seasons before his arrival. Over the next decade, Kruger guided Oklahoma to seven NCAA Tournaments (only missing the Big Dance once since his second season), two Sweet 16s and the 2016 Final Four. His 195 victories are the fourth most by an OU head coach.
Under Kruger, Sooner players earned first-team All-Big 12 selections on six occasions and racked up 32 Academic All-Big 12 honors. Kruger mentored numerous national stars, most notably 2016 National Player of the Year Buddy Hield and 2018 National Freshman of the Year Trae Young.
“We didn’t know it would be 10 years. We didn’t know if it’d be seven or 12 or whatever when we started out,” Kruger said. “But it transpired as we couldn’t have wanted it more. We had great players. We had great staffs, and the people on campus and around the building, facility, are always kind and generous and supportive. And we couldn’t have asked for more. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Yet, as Kruger steps away, he says that game he loves has issues that need to be addressed or the college game could be in serious trouble.
“Absolutely, great worry for the game. As great as the game is—and you’ll get me on a soapbox here—but the NCAA, you know, has got to revamp. Period,” Kruger said. “I mean, we can’t continue as we are. And young coaches today seeing people violate the rules and nothing happen is ridiculous. I’m concerned about the young coaches taking that as a lead. You know, one of the greatest things my dad imparted is there’s no satisfaction in cheating and winning. I mean, absolutely anyone can do that. So, you’ll get more on a soapbox here, and yeah, there needs to be great changes. And it’s tough because of the amateurism aspect, the legal fronts, what you can do, but the NCAA right now is going to a gunfight with a knife and we’re not winning.”
With Kruger’s departure, Oklahoma now has to fill both its men’s and women’s head coaching positions in the same year. Sherri Coale retired a week earlier.
But Kruger did have a bit of parting advice for whoever takes his place.
“To the next guy, you know, he’s going to be fortunate to have the same opportunity I did, to work with outstanding people,” Kruger said. “And I know Oklahoma’s about greatness and about championships, and the other coaches in the program, we aspired to try to do what they’ve done for many years, and that is to put successful people and teams on the floor. And [there are] just so many people to be thankful for there as well. So, the next coach will be great. I think he’ll take this and take it to greater heights because Oklahoma deserves that and expects that in a good way and a healthy way, and I can’t wait to see who that might be.”
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