A two-time Big 8 Player of the Year winner at Kansas State, Kruger started his head coaching career in South Texas at Pan American, where he guided a major turnaround in the program. Before Kruger arrived, Pan Am had won only five games (1982) and after a first-season seven-win year, Kruger's squad posted double-digit wins in three straight seasons, including a 20-8 record in his final campaign (1985-86). He also served as the university athletic director for five seasons, very impressive considering Kruger was just 30 at the time.
After rebuilding Pan American, Kruger left for his alma mater, Kansas State, and turned in perhaps his finest overall coaching performance. He led the Wildcats to four NCAA bids in four seasons, and an Elite 8 appearance in 87-88. He posted an 81-46 overall record (.638) and a 34-22 (.607) mark in league play.
Kruger was tabbed the permanent replacement for former NC State coach Norm Sloan at Florida in 1990, replacing interim head coach Don DeVoe who finished out the year for Sloan. During his six-year stint at Florida, Kruger transformed the Gators from a program that was not a factor in the SEC race to a team that posted a single-season school-record 29 wins and went on to postseason play four times. The year before he took over the program (1989-90), Florida finished 7-21 overall and 3-15 in the SEC. In six seasons in Gainesville, Kruger twice led the Gators to the NIT and twice to the NCAA Tournament. His crowning achievement came in 1994 when he directed UF to a school-record 29-8 mark (conference title) and a trip to the Final Four in his fourth season at the university. A two-time SEC Coach of the Year (1992 and 1994), Kruger was a finalist for the Naismith honor in 1994.
Kruger left Florida in 1996 to take over at Illinois, and he led the Illini to three NCAA Tournament second-round appearances in his four seasons while compiling an 81-48 (.628) mark. In his first season at Illinois, Kruger guided the Illini to a 22-10 overall record and a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten Conference after the team had recorded a ninth-place finish the previous year.
|Kruger took a group of players that was picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten and led the Illini to the school's first Big Ten Championship since 1984.|
Kruger's third Illini team returned no starters and the Big Ten's youngest and most inexperienced team faced the second-toughest schedule in the nation (Sagarin ratings). That team recorded five wins against ranked opponents and came within one game of the NCAA Tournament by falling to No. 2 Michigan State in the conference championship.
Kruger's last Illinois squad finished 22-10 and again made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He would accept a five-year deal worth $10 million in 2000 to coach the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, but didn't leave the cupboard bare at Illinois. Bill Self inherited a team that returned guards Cory Bradford, Frank Williams, center Brian Cook and forward Marcus Griffin -- all who were potential All-Big Ten and All-American candidates.
The success Kruger had in college didn't translate over to the NBA. After three seasons as head coach of the Hawks and a season as an assistant with the New York Knicks, Kruger returned to the college game and took over at UNLV, where he just completed his second season as head coach. In two years in Las Vegas, he has a 34-27 overall record and 17-13 mark in Mountain West Conference play.
Known as an excellent bench coach, Kruger led each of the first four schools he coached to 20-win seasons and is one of only a handful of active Division I head coaches to have taken three different programs to the NCAA Tournament. With a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance, Kruger has proven he can make deep runs in the Big Dance, and he won conference titles at Florida and Illinois.
What Makes Him a Viable Candidate: Kruger is a proven winner with a vast amount of head coaching experience. He has been a head coach for 23 seasons, including 20 on the college level, and has had a considerable amount of success. Kansas State and Florida, two schools that had not been known for stellar basketball programs, benefited from Kruger's ability, as he rebuilt the Wildcat program while taking Florida to the school's first ever Final Four. There is no doubt that Kruger has what it takes as a bench coach, and his resume speaks for itself.
Although his NBA coaching experience was considered a failure, that shouldn't be held against Kruger as a coach. Several coaches have struggled making the transition to the NBA, including "elite" coaches such as John Calipari (Memphis) and Rick Pitino (Louisville). Calipari and Pitino both have stated that they learned from their experiences on the next level and admitted it helps to be able to say on the recruiting trail that you have coached and squared off against the world's best basketball players. Sure, Kruger didn't succeed as an NBA coach, but those opportunities aren't just given out to college coaches. His success on that level led to the chance to prove what he can do on the professional level.
|With a Final Four and Elite Eight appearance, Kruger has proven he can make deep runs in the Big Dance, and he won conference titles at Florida and Illinois.|
An Academic All-American at Kansas State, Kruger also earned All-Big Eight academic honors three times. He stresses academics and would be able to recruit the type of student-athletes who could meet NC State's academic requirements. He and his wife, Barbara, have also been involved in various charities, and he has been a major contributor to the Coaches vs. Cancer program.
As a head coach, Lon Kruger would be the ideal choice off the court, as he is one of the most respected coaches in the business. On the surface, he appears to be the type of candidate Lee Fowler is searching for.
What Makes Him a Longshot: The biggest knock on Kruger has been his instability. His longest head coaching stint came at Florida, as he coached the Gators for six seasons. At Pan American, Kansas State, and Illinois he stayed just four years, and he was head coach of the Hawks for two and a half seasons before being fired midway through the 2002-03 year. At 53, he could be looking to settle down, but will he do that at UNLV or is he already looking to leave Las Vegas?
Wolfpack fans have often voiced their concerns with Herb Sendek's personality, and Kruger would likely not be an upgrade in that area. Like Sendek, Kruger has a calm on-court demeanor, a lack of on-court histrionics, and refrains from one-on-one confrontations with his own players. His postgame comments are often graceful and cliched, and Kruger is not known for being fiery or demonstrative. Is that a negative? It just depends on who you're talking to, but it seems like most Wolfpack fans want the next NC State coach to differ from Sendek in this regard.
Kruger isn't known as an outstanding recruiter. He is an excellent bench coach, but is generally considered a solid recruiter. He did land Mitch Richmond at Kansas State and utilized the "Peoria Connection" at Illinois, but was unable to capitalize on his Final Four appearance at Florida, where he left the Gators with virtually no talent when Donovan took over. If he was named the next head coach at NC State, Kruger would likely hire a coach familiar with NC State's recruiting region, as most of his ties are located in the midwestern part of the country. Making a run at ex-Wolfpack assistant Larry Harris would be a smart move, if Kruger did in fact take over at NC State.
Kruger's contract could also be a stumbling block. He inked a five-year multi-million dollar deal two years ago with UNLV, and the contract includes a $1.5 million dollar buyout. If he bolts, Kruger (or his new school) would need to pay the buyout for UNLV to release him. The question is, would Lon Kruger be worth an expensive contract and lucrative buyout?
Pack Pride's Take: If available, Kruger would have to be at the top of Lee Fowler's list. He is a proven winner and is regarded as one of the game's top coaches. He would bring instant credibility to NC State and should be able to win right away with the talent in Raleigh. Sure, he could leave in four or five years, that's what he has done in the past, but if he can get Kansas State to an Elite 8 or Florida to a Final Four, imagine what he can do at a program with solid talent and great facilities like NC State.
UNLV athletics contributed to this report