Kruger brought a re-building plan to OU

Sooners' coach sits on the edge of NCAA Tournament history

Two years passed in an Oklahoma uniform and guard Buddy Hield waited for his head coach to stop using the same mantra. All Hield ever heard was to ‘wait until next year.’

He questioned it, wondering why “this year” wasn’t ever the year for Oklahoma.

It was all a part of Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger’s plan, building for a season when everything would ultimately come together. This year, Oklahoma tied the highest seed that Kruger has ever earned in the NCAA Tournament.

Hield’s joking frustration with Kruger through his first two season at Oklahoma is gone, but so is the reason.

“He always said, ‘Wait ’til next year,’” Hield said. “I haven’t heard that this year. We feel that this year is the time for us to make that big step. . . . He never said it this year.

“I feel like this is the time for us to go showcase what we are capable of doing. Next year means we need one more year. This is our year to go prove to everybody that we are worthy of making a run and being a Final Four team as well.”

That’s always been the plan for Kruger, though. He had done this before.

Kruger, who is already the only coach in NCAA history to lead five teams to the NCAA Tournament, has a chance to become the first coach to lead five schools to a victory in the ‘Big Dance.’

Oklahoma, obviously, has been no different.

“Guys transitioned, I think, pretty easily,” Kruger said of his first years at Oklahoma. “Some more quickly than others, but that’s to be expected.”

The Sooners put together a 13-win and 14-win season before Kruger arrived. He won 20 games just two years later and has made the NCAA Tournament three straight times.

In his first Division-I coaching position, Kruger made four straight NCAA Tournaments in his four years at Kansas State, which had missed the tournament for the four previous seasons – never recording more than 16 wins.

Florida won just seven games the year before Kruger arrived. In two years, the Gators won 19 games, and four years later, Kruger led Florida to 29 wins. Illinois hadn’t won a Big Ten championship in 12 years before Kruger arrived. The Fighting Illini won the conference title in his second season.

After five-straight seasons with less than 20 wins, Illinois won 20 games in three of four seasons under Kruger.

After being considered one of the best teams in college basketball history, UNLV made just one NCAA Tournament and hadn’t won a tournament game since 1991 before Kruger arrived on campus. Three years into his time at UNLV, Kruger made the tournament, winning two games and posting 30 victories – still Kruger’s highest single-season total.

Kruger brought a pair of assistants – Lew Hill and Steve Henson – with him from Las Vegas.

“We’re not concerned about what all has happened prior,” Kruger said of trying to change something when he arrives at a program. “We want to create a culture in which players want to be here. Players want to get their degree. Players want to work hard. Players want to invest the time.

“You do that by creating an atmosphere in which players want to be around the staff, want to be around the coaches and want to spend time in the gym as a result of that. It all kind of goes hand-in-hand.”

That’s exactly what Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler noticed when he was trying to look for a place closer to home after getting his release from Gonzaga. He didn’t want to go to Oklahoma State and was settling on a smaller school in-state or somewhere else in a neighboring state.

Spangler had only spoken to Kruger a few times on a phone when the two finally met face-to-face. Spangler immediately felt welcome.

“That’s what makes him the best,” Spangler said.

That’s what Spangler thinks is Kruger’s best trait: His openness with his players. Now, any time Spangler needs to talk to his coach, he can walk into his office or even Kruger’s home and speak with his wife, Barbara.

Hield saw that too, noticing the coaching staff’s friendliness when assistant coach Chris Crutchfield started recruiting him in the Bahamas and later in Kansas.

“He was always calm, always smiling,” Hield said. “He didn’t tell me stuff I wanted to hear. He didn’t promise me anything. I respect that.”

Hield was willing to buy in to Kruger’s long-term goals, even if he questioned the methods at times. Spangler knew what Kruger was building toward.

Kruger’s team-building – or re-building – nature isn’t something he accomplished alone. He wants players who are good people. They have all the skills necessary to win – a good jump shot and sound defensive base – but also want to earn their degree and represent the program.

“For him, it’s more than basketball,” Spangler said. “He wants to make us grow up to be men. That’s the best thing.”

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories