Twenty-two years. That’s how long it took Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger to get back to the Final Four. After reaching that pinnacle with Florida back in 1994, you had to think there would be many more trips to come.
But that’s the reality of college basketball. You can have good teams. You can have great teams but that doesn’t guarantee you will punch your ticket.
Back then Kruger was 41 years old and a rising star in the profession. And he became just that, leading Illinois to major success and getting a chance to coach in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks.
College was where he found success, though, returning to the game with UNLV before taking over for an OU program left in shambles in 2011.
Now 63 years old, and Kruger is more relevant than ever before.
“He’s an old school coach, not like everybody else,” freshman guard Christian James said. “He tries to take a different path. He’s a great person, always positive. He keeps us humble and keeps us away from other things to keep us focused on basketball.”
It’s a tremendous personal accomplishment for Kruger, but you’re never going to hear him say it. When Kruger talks about OU making its first Final Four since the 2002 season, it has nothing to do with personal satisfaction.
“The best part of it is the how great impact is and the memory those guys are going to have,” Kruger said. “The smile on the faces. The celebration in the locker room – you can’t put a value on those moments.
“When people talk about them in the future, they’ll be talking about them as a Final Four team.”
It’s an understatement to say the Sooners wouldn’t be there without Kruger. OU fans shudder to think where this program could be right now had athletic director Joe Castiglione not been so adamant in believing Kruger was the guy.
The program was bordering on irrelevancy, which is among the worst words to describe any major sports program. Loved, hated, you like that. Irrelevant? That stings.
The first year with Kruger was nothing to write home about. There weren’t dreams of making it to the Final Four. Heck, not even the NCAA tournament was a realistic goal. It was about building the program back up and doing it the right way.
It started with the kids on campus and continued with the mentality Kruger set and the players Kruger and his staff would recruit from that point forward.
Obviously one of those guys is senior star Buddy Hield.
“Coach Kruger has been awesome to us,” Hield said. “He teaches us every day how to handle ourselves on and off the court and in the classroom and with the media. He’s like a father figure for us.”
Someone who has kept his word, too. James had to take a long pause when asked if the Kruger on the recruiting trail is different than the one he sees every day now.
It was as if James was searching for one time when Kruger wasn’t the standup guy. In the end, James came up with nothing.
“He’s the same person since I stepped on campus,” James said. “He’s never misled me in any sort of way. Other college guys are telling me the coaches weren’t telling them the truth. But Coach Kruger has been telling me the truth since Day 1, and I really appreciate that.”
College basketball is a much different game than when Kruger was taking the Gators to the Final Four in 1994. The game is full of big personalities, on the court and on the bench.
Kruger is not that guy, obviously. He never has been. He never will be. The way he runs his program won’t grab any headlines, but it might earn a championship.
“I’m really happy for him,” assistant coach Chris Crutchfield said. “He has been doing this for so long that I think people take granted that this is easy to do, and it’s not.
“Sometimes people get misconstrued about what basketball is about. It’s still about the young people, it’s still about the game. He doesn’t make it about him, and he always keeps it in the right perspective.”