The Oklahoma men’s basketball team looked confident as they strolled through the lobby of the hotel with music blaring in their headsets. They were returning from a 9 a.m. workout at Bramlage Coliseum in preparation for their afternoon game against Kansas State to determine who would remain undefeated in the 2013 Big 12 conference standings. It was Jan. 19 and both teams were 3-0 in Big 12 play. A team manager directed the OU players to a private dining room for their pre-game meal and announced that head coach Lon Kruger would arrive in 20 minutes.
Lonnie invited me to meet at the hotel and join him for the pre-game meal. I arrived early and sat in a comfortable couch near the front entrance of the lobby. I first saw him play basketball in Dodge City at the Tournament of Champions in January 1969 when I was the freshmen basketball coach at K-State. He was a high school junior playing for Silver Lake, located 10 miles west of Topeka. Later, I told our head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons that Kruger was a prospect.
K-State’s head football coach, Vince Gibson, along with All-American quarterback, and later Green Bay Packers star Lynn Dickey, had resurrected K-State’s football program.
Knowing Kruger was a star quarterback in high school, we invited him for a campus visit during the fall of 1969 because our team was fun to watch, especially after trouncing Oklahoma 59-21 that year. KSU Stadium was our last stop on the itinerary.
We were running late. I knew we’d miss the start of the game if we didn’t grab a quick lunch. I called my wife Kay and said, “Honey, I’m with Lonnie Kruger from Silver Lake and we need lunch.” Kay had a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich waiting for young Lonnie, and we headed off to the stadium — now Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Kruger was on our prospect list, but we waited to make any commitments until we could see him play his senior year.
I returned to Dodge City in January of 1970 to watch Kruger play again in the same Tournament Of Champions, but was equally impressed by the play of Southwestern Heights’ 6-foot-8 junior Gene McVey. Southwestern Heights was located in Kismet, about 65 miles south of Dodge City. Kruger and McVey played against each other in the consolation game.
I don’t remember who won, but it didn’t matter because now we added McVey to our prospect list. Finding two Division-I prospects in Kansas during the same tourney, back then, was a nice surprise. McVey broke his ankle in the next game against Kingman and didn’t play the remainder of his senior year. I told Gene and his parents that we wanted him in our program. Our early recruiting before his injury sealed the deal and he signed to play for K-State.
The hotel receptionist at the front desk kept looking at me. I suddenly realized why. I was sitting on a couch in a relaxed position, grinning at times and gazing at the entrance door. She had to be wondering, “Why is this guy sitting there in a trance, reading something, and smiling the whole time?” “There must be something weird going on in his mind.” Or maybe she thought, “this must be the first time this guy has witnessed the magic of automatic doors opening as people entered the lobby of the hotel.”
Little did she know I was reliving memories and reviewing my extensive research notes on Kruger, as I waited for him to walk through those sliding glass doors.
Kruger was All-State in football, basketball and baseball and wanted to play both college basketball and baseball. K-State head baseball coach Bob Brazier and Cotton agreed to split the cost of Kruger’s full scholarship from their respective recruiting budgets. But, before we could close the deal, Cotton left during the spring of 1970 to coach the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Kruger’s scholarship arrangement was put on hold until Cotton’s replacement could be found.
K-State got a lucky break. Kruger was recruited by Kansas, Wichita State and Drake, but didn’t make any commitments because he had an offer on the table to play professional baseball for the Houston Astros. The Astros offered a $5,000 signing bonus and funding for college, but his father, Don, told him to hold out for a better offer. The offer never came.
That left the door open for Cotton’s successor Jack Hartman. Hartman, at the urging of Fred White (former sportscaster for WIBW in Topeka) signed Kruger to play for K-State in midsummer at about the same time he hired me to become Kruger’s freshmen coach. I was in Seattle helping Tex Winter with a summer basketball camp when the call came from Hartman, who was elated to learn he had signed Kruger. Three other outstanding freshmen prospects that we recruited, Danny Beard, Larry Williams and Gene McVey had already committed to play for K-State, and the stage was set for Hartman.
As you would guess, Kruger was the team leader on our 1970-71 freshmen squad. We never dreamed our BLT prospect Lonnie would be twice named Big Eight Player of the Year and that his No. 12 would one day hang from the rafters in Bramlage Coliseum.
We knew he had the potential to be a good player, but never imagined he would become one of the best players ever to wear a K-State uniform. The “Fab Four” —my nickname for Kruger, McVey, Beard and Williams — led Hartman’s K-State teams to consecutive Big Eight championships in 1972 and 73. The “Fab Four” bonded like brothers during their freshmen year and have maintained close ties to this day.
I don’t even have close ties with my former K-State 6-10 freshmen roommate Roy Smith or even know if he’s still alive. Roy and I played basketball together for four years in the mid 1960’s at K-State, but lost all contact during the past 45 years. Someone once said he’s living in a remote region on one of the Hawaiian Islands.
Smith was quiet, but extremely smart. He made straight A’s as chemistry major, but walked, talked and moved very slowly. We were playing the Jayhawks in Lawrence and down by 10 points at halftime. Tex Winter wasn’t happy. Smith was assigned to KU’s 6-11 center Walt Wesley, who later played 10 years in the NBA. Tex, who was notorious for mixing up names thought Smith was guarding Wes Unseld — bother of George Unseld — who played at KU before Walt Wesley enrolled.
Tex took Walt Wesley’s last name and came up with Wes Unseld who never even played at KU. Wes Unseld played for the University of Louisville and definitely was nowhere near Allen Fieldhouse. By the time Tex reached the locker room Wes Unseld became Unblad, apparently a nickname he made up along the way.
So within minutes, Walt Wesley’s named changed from Wes Unseld and now Unblad. Whenever we trailed at half players took the seats in the locker room with heads down to avoid eye contact with Tex, knowing if your eyes met, you’d be the first one admonished for any errors.
Tex banged the locker room blackboard so hard with his fist that chalk from the eraser tray fell to the floor like snowflakes. The loud noise startled us. Our eyes opened and all heads raised in unison. Tex had our undivided attention. “Unblad is killing us,” said Tex. “Who is guarding Unblad?” We looked at each other and wondered who he was, but knowing Tex often mixed up names we soon realized he must be referring to Walt Wesley. “I am coach,”said Smith. By now, Tex was getting worked up with high-pitched emotion in his voice.
He said, “Smith, Unblad is eating your lunch out there. He’s scoring at will.” Then Tex assumed a defense position with arms flapping, as he demonstrated a side-to-side sliding move for Smith’s benefit, then shuffled his feet back and forth in front of us shouting, “Smith, here’s how you do it, you’ve got to move, move, move, react, react, react, slide, slide, slide. You’re not in chemistry class Smith — you can’t analyze the situation, you must react and move to stop Unblad.” Then, while out of breath, he looked at Smith with piercing eyes and said, “Why aren’t you doing this and just whose fault do you think it is, mine or yours?” Smith licked his lips, paused for about 5 seconds and finally said in his soft southern Missouri twang, “A little bit of both coach.” All heads dropped down again looking at the floor, wondering who would be next, as we were all laughing inside trying not to show it.
I’ll always remember the “A little bit of both” story because Roy was analyzing Tex’s remarks from start to finish. Most players would have felt remorse or would have answered, ‘It’s my fault and I’ll do better this next half.” But our boy Roy treated the question like a chemistry equation. Walt + Wesley = Wes + Unseld + Unblad = Both K-State coach and player guilty for not stopping Unblad or for not even knowing who Unblad was. Unblad, I mean Walt Wesley, prevailed in the second half and we lost the game.
My thoughts drifted back to 1982 when Kruger called me from Edinburg, Texas. At age 29, he had just accepted his first head-coaching job at Texas-Pan American, following a five-year stint as assistant to Jack Hartman at KState. Prior to joining the K-State staff, Lonnie spent one year as a graduate assistant under the late Bob Johnson at Pittsburg State. Lonnie was calling for advice on how to implement business management and administrative strategies because he also served as athletic director.
I was K-State’s alumni director at the time and recall that we chatted about administrative practices that had helped me in my job. Not sure if any of my suggestions were ever helpful to Lonnie, but it was a typical Kruger problem solving approach to seek more fact finding information. He was both a coach and administrator, which is highly unusual in the coaching profession. But Kruger was always up for a new challenge and was successful in pulling it off in his dual role. When he arrived in Edinburg, the Texas-Pan American team had only won five games the year before, but by Kruger’s fourth year, his team had won 20.
Hartman retired in 1986 and K-State came calling, or should I say Kruger came calling because he wanted the K-State job. I remember the late Jerry Patrick (who lettered for Jack Gardner in the late 1940’s) once told me that Kruger had first contacted him seeking his support for the head coaching position after Hartman’s announcement that he’d be leaving. I’m not sure, but suspect Patrick and other key alumni helped K-State’s athletic director, Larry Travis, understand that Kruger was a favorite son of many K-State alumni, who thought he’d be a good fit to replace Hartman. Kruger became K-State’s 17th men’s basketball coach and remained in the position for four seasons (1986-89).
In 1988, coach Kruger was a heartbeat away from taking K-State to the Final Four, a feat that has not been repeated since my redshirt-sophomore year in 1964 when K-State lost to UCLA during the first game in Kansas City and Michigan in the consolation game. UCLA defeated Duke in the finals to win coach John Wooden’s first NCAA championship that year with Walt Hazard and Gail Goodrich leading the way. K-State has never been back to a Final Four since, and 48 years is a long time to wait for a basketball rich program like K-State.
All-American Mitch Richmond scored 35 points in Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence on Jan. 30, 1988 to lead the Wildcats to a 72-61 win to halt KU’s then-record 55-game home winning streak. On Feb. 18, the Jayhawks defeated K-State in Ahearn Field House in Manhattan 64-63. That would be the last time the rivalry would be played in Ahearn, as K-State moved to its new home in Bramlage Coliseum the following year. Things were looking good for Wildcat fans, as K-State won a decisive victory over Kansas at Kemper arena in Kansas City during the 1988 post season Big Eight tournament in March.
I was in Kansas City at that tournament. But Coach Kruger doesn’t know to this day, while he was coaching in the heat of battle in Kemper, I had my own battle with K-State athletic director Larry Travis. When I arrived at Kemper for the first-round game, my four seats were located in the nosebleed section. Earlier in the year, I had announced publicly I would be leaving the Alumni Association as executive director effective July 1, 1988 after serving in that position for 10 years. But, someone in charge of tickets in the athletic department must have thought I already left.
I finally reached the very top row, out of breath, after climbing Kemper’s stairway to heaven. I plopped down in my seat and my family — Kay, Nick and Molly — took their seats next to me. They were probably wondering if I had been fired earlier in the week because of the location of our seats. A K-State fan said, “Hey Weigel, I thought you were still the Alumni Director, what are you doing up here in the crow’s nest?” At that point my ego got the best of me. I was furious inside, but tried not to show it. I borrowed a fan’s binoculars and spotted my counterpart, Fred Williams, KU’s Alumni Director, sitting in the fourth row behind the Jayhawks’ bench.
I’m usually a pretty mild mannered guy, but I went ballistic at that point. I flew out of my crow’s nest seat, then stumbled down the long flight of stairs and headed straight to the Will Call window to find the athletic department ticket manager Carol Adolph. When I confronted Carol about the ticket mix-up, she said it was Larry Travis who put me there. I headed to where Travis was sitting, and he said,” She did it.”
I was still fuming because those answers weren’t good enough. Many K-Staters may remember Travis for pacing back and forth outside the K-State football dressing room door during the fourth quarter in the second game of the 1985 football season in full view of the fans at KSU Stadium, with the intention of firing Jim Dickey before he could even enter the locker room. It was not a pretty site. Dickey was a good friend since we were both hired in 1978. He was a gentleman and good guy and didn’t deserve the public humiliation he received that day at KSU Stadium. Associate athletic director, Lee Moon, was hired the next day to finish out the remainder of the football season.
Now it was time to confront our newly-hired president Jon Wefald, who was sitting close to the court. President Wefald was known as “Jump Shot” by some within the athletic department circles because he liked to challenge recruits and other athletes to shoot-around contests on his outdoor basketball court at the President’s home on campus. He was instrumental in providing the support needed from the top to help Bill Snyder build a successful football program that would eventually provide the financial resources to make all of the non-revenue sports successful as well. And it worked. Wefald will go down in history as the “Jock” president who resurrected the athletic program to national prominence in football. He also dramatically increased enrollment through a concentrated student-recruitment marketing program that continues to this day.
After Wefald accepted the job at K-State, he called me everyday from Minnesota to see how recruiting was going. Not just student recruitment. He wanted to know the names, heights, weights and positions of student-athletes who were signing letters of intent to play football at K-State. I would say, ‘Jon, how do you expect me to know all that — I’m a basketball guy?” He’d say, “well, you are the Alumni Director and need to know that stuff.” Jon and I developed a good working relationship as we traveled together to alumni events all over the country during his first year and my last year at K-State. Wefald and I got to know each other very well, even though he knew I’d be with him for only one year as Alumni Director.
Wefald could tell I was not a happy camper when I tapped him on the shoulder and saw that troubled look on my face. I said, “Jon, please turn around for a minute and look up in the nose bleed section.” Wefald had no clue what I was talking about. I said, “See those people way up there in the top row?” Wefald squinted and continued to look confused. “Jon, that’s were I am sitting for the tournament.” Then I said, “Now look down there in the fourth row at the guy wearing KU colors.” That guy is the KU Alumni director.” Wefald got the message, and I could tell he was as embarrassed as I was. I don’t remember where I sat during the next game, but I worked myself up into a good sweat and looked like I had just finished playing the game on the court. I should have asked Coach Kruger if I could use the locker room shower.
After Kruger’s decisive 69-54 win over KU in Kemper in the Big Eight tournament title game in early March, we were heading to the NCAA tourney. K-State beat La Salle in the first round, 66-53, followed by a win over DePaul, 66-58. Now, we were in the Elite Eight and heading to the Midwest Regional in Pontiac, Mich., to play in the Carrier Dome. I received a message from the athletic department that I would be part of the official university traveling party with room accommodations at the hotel, complimentary tickets in K-State’s VIP section, and access to all hospitality areas with all expenses paid by the Athletic department — and no nose bleed seating.
Following the final AP poll at the end of the 1988 season, No. 20 K-State would play No. 3 Purdue. K-State shocked Purdue with a 73-70 win. And unranked KU defeated Vanderbilt 77-64. The stage was set for the championship game between the Jayhawks and the Wildcats to see who would return to Kemper Arena to play in the Final Four. K-State beat KU twice during the season, but could they do it again? K-State had prepared for “Danny and the Miracles,” as in All-American Danny Manning, but they hadn’t anticipated the performance of “Barry and his Scooter,” as in Scooter Barry, the son of Hall of Famer Rick Barry. Scooter came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points.
Prior to his stunning play, Barry had scored only 96 points during the previous 32 games. Kansas prevailed 71-58 and Barry, not Manning, put the dagger in the Wildcats. K-State finished the season 25-9, while Kansas beat Oklahoma in the NCAA finals in Kansas City, 83-79, after knocking off Duke 66-59 in the semifinals. Kansas finished the season with a 25-11 record and K-State waited another 22 years before Frank Martin and the Wildcats would return to the Elite Eight again in 2010.
After Kruger left, K-State won 232 games and lost 236 from 1990-06. The basketball program declined and fans wondered it K-State could ever become competitive again. Bob Huggins brought new life to the program by winning 23 games during the 2006-07 seasons before leaving for West Virginia the following year.
Frank Martin took over and went 117-54 during his four-year stay before leaving for South Carolina in 2011. In my opinion, Huggins and Martin were not a long-term fit for K-State. But they did provide a needed antibiotic in the form of massive penicillin shot to put K-State basketball back on track.
Martin’s drill sergeant, in-your-face-fear-factor approach wore thin on his players over time, but it instilled a killer instinct mentality and toughness that has carried over to new head coach Bruce Weber’s team, especially on defense.
Sunny Florida was Kruger’s next stop when he left K-State in 1990. Once he left K-State, he became known as “The Rebuilder Coach.” What’s remarkable is that he rebuilt programs in four years, and then at the same time, took his rebuilt teams to the NCAA tournament. When he rebuilt K-State’s program in 1986, the Wildcats had not been to the NCAA tourney in four years and were only winning about 50 percent of their games in the three previous seasons. Kruger became the only coach in K-State history to take his team to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances during his four-year stint — topped off with the Elite Eight appearance in 1988.
Kruger took over a Florida program that had been under investigation by the NCAA and FBI. Kruger was hired to bring back integrity to the program and took his team to four NCAA appearances, winning 100 games and a trip to the Final Four in 1994.
The Big Ten came calling in 1996 and once again, the magic prevailed. Illinois brought in “Mr. Integrity” because the school was under sanctions by the NCAA. The Illini hadn’t won a Big Ten championship in 12 years, only one title in 33 years and had only one NCAA tournament win under their belt in seven years. Kruger won a Big Ten title in his second year and took his team to at least the second round of the NCAA tournament three times in four seasons.
Kruger was then lured to the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 2000 for big buck, but ran into an impatient organization. They wanted to rebuild, but wanted it now. In his book “The X’s & O’s of Success,” published in 2009, Kruger wrote, “Being dismissed as the head coach of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks two months into our third season with the team was the most humbling experience of my life.”
He had never experienced failure up to that point. Kruger recalls in the book, “I remember going out to eat dinner in the days following being fired. Imagine one day your schedule being unexpectedly wiped clean for the next six months and having absolutely no commitments. Trust me, you have plenty of time to go out and eat. To this day, I can vividly recall sitting at the table worrying that everyone in the room was thinking — that’s the guy who just got fired by the Hawks.”
Calls from other coaches were reassuring when they reminded Kruger that about every NBA coach “gets fired at one time or other.” Kruger wrote, “Now when I see coaches on the hot seat or see other coaches get dismissed, my empathy for them is at an even higher level. I understand the power of a phone call or a simple note of support.”
The hot seat may have been uncomfortable, but he didn’t stay on it very long. He joined the New York Knicks as an assistant to Don Chaney on June 20, 2003, but remained in the Big Apple for only a short time before the glitter of Las Vegas caught his eye.
UNLV had tried nine different head basketball coaches in the previous 13 seasons before Kruger was hired on March 15, 2004, to take over the Runnin’ Rebels program after a long absence from NCAA tournament play back when UNLV was winning with Jerry Tarkanian.
Move over Wayne Newton and welcome Coach Kruger, was the mantra of those victory starved Runnin’ Rebel fans. Las Vegas didn’t want another Elvis, Sinatra, or Newton to be King, it wanted a basketball coach who could once again wear that crown and return the Rebels to their glory years. The spotlights were still shining on the strip, but not on Rebel basketball. UNLV made just two NCAA tournament appearances in 15 years and during that time had not won an NCAA tournament game since 1991, nor was ranked nationally since 1992. That all changed after Kruger arrived.
The “Rebuilder” went to work, and in 2007 (his third year) won the Mountain West Conference tournament title, took the team to the Sweet 16 and won 30 games. An added bonus was having his son Kevin play for his dad at point guard after graduating from Arizona State under what is now referred to as the “Kevin Kruger” rule. The rule allowed any athlete who had already earned a degree, yet had one year of eligibility remaining, an option to transfer to another institution to continue graduate studies without sitting out a year.
After the 2009 season, Kruger moved into the No. 2 spot for all-time wins by a UNLV coach (trailing only Tarkanian). The Rebel fans were shocked when after seven seasons of winning basketball, Oklahoma began to court Kruger, eventually taking him to Sooner country. OU president David Boren and athletic director Joe Castiglione offered Kruger a seven-year, $16 million contract.
There was speculation that Kruger saw the handwriting on the wall when Nevada governor Brian Sandoval slashed university budgets by 17 percent and there was no guarantee that Kruger’s $1.1 million salary would not be cut when his contract was renewed. But, the Sooners had the cash, and now they had Kruger. OU wanted the services of “The Rebuilder.” He finished 15-16 his first year at OU in 2011-12, but put on a coaching clinic when he beat Martin and the Wildcats twice that year. Now, he was back in town to take on K-State for an afternoon game at Bramlage.
After almost 40 minutes of racking my brain to pull up information and recall those Kruger memories, I felt like my brain had just taken a drink from a fire hydrant. Mind-body expert, Deepak Chopra says that our “human brain has up to 70,000 individual thoughts per day,” and I felt like I had just maxed out that number as my mind drifted from thought to thought whenever an event was recalled, even going back to another memory from the past that wasn’t even related to Kruger, as you can now tell after reading this far.
But wait, surely I have some thoughts left because Coach Kruger just walked through those magic sliding doors. He entered the hotel lobby with real purpose, moving swiftly as his two assistants Steve Henson and Mike Shepard — both K-State graduates — followed closely behind. After the customary pleasantries and handshakes, we entered the private dining area where the team was waiting.
Kruger went straight to the video recording device and reviewed about a 10-minute clip of what to look for and what to expect from K-State. Then said, “Let’s eat.” The team moved through the breakfast, brunch line and made its selections from a variety of choices including, bacon, waffles, hash browns and fruit to allow time for all of it to digest three hours before the game. Kruger and I waited until all the players were through the line, then sat and talked while we ate.
It was catch up time. The brain reserve woke up and started framing the questions with those remaining brain cells, firing thoughts every 1.2 seconds in my mind. Thoughts like, “How’s Barb and the family? Why did you leave UNLV? How do you remain so positive? What about your six-bypass heart surgery? Tell me about your team. Where do you live in Norman? I hear you play golf with Toby Keith.”
I put those rapid thoughts on pause, and started with family. We talked about Lon and Barb’s daughter Angie and their son Kevin since my daughter Molly would sometimes babysit when they were small while living in Manhattan. Molly didn’t remember much about those few times she was called into duty to help with child care, but she once told me, “Coach Kruger sure did pay well.” Daughter Angie is now a doctor, an OBGYN, living with her husband Mike and their daughter Avery in Las Vegas. Lon’s grandchild was born on Aug. 8, 2012.
Kevin is playing basketball in Germany for Eisenbaren-Bremerhaven. Lon’s wife, Barb, stays active and loves horses. She brought her horse Dancer from Las Vegas. The Kruger’s live in a home in the country with 50 acres just outside Norman. While in Las Vegas, Barb worked as a volunteer and advocate of sheltering women from domestic violence in safe houses, and spent time with the Nevada partnership for the homeless. She enjoys being active in her PEO sisterhood organization. She and Lonnie knew each other before K-State, but their romance blossomed when they dated while at K-State (including horseback riding dates). Barb’s parents live in Topeka.
It’s difficult to ask a lot of questions while one is eating, but I did get in a few. I asked why he left UNLV and Kruger said, “We wanted to get back to the Midwest to be closer to home with family, and the challenge of playing in the Big 12.” Lon has three brothers — Mike, Dave and Jerry — who live in Topeka and a sister Terry who lives in Kansas City. The Kruger family started with five, but one brother was killed in a farm accident when Lonnie was 13.
I didn’t bring up the money issue for leaving UNLV because it’s never polite to ask someone about what they make or insinuate that it’s all about money.
But I was tempted to tell Lon that when he played for me as a freshman in 1970, Coach Hartman was paying me $11,000 per year and gave me another $5,000 for running his summer camp. Heck, when Coach Hartman left Southern Illinois to come to K-State in 1970, the Evansville Indiana Courier reported that “the coaching salary at Southern Illinois of $21,700 made Jack Hartman one of the highest paid men in his profession” And get this, it went on to say, “Kansas State is not matching this base pay, but side benefits like a season-long television program make Hartman’s overall income higher in Manhattan.”
Wow, have times changed. Had I known that a little round ball could make one a millionaire, I might have stayed in college coaching longer than four years, but I’m happy Lon was able to make the jump into the big time, regarding pay, because coaches are constantly on the firing line for results.
The six-bypass surgery in August of 2007 was a big scare for Lon and luckily the blockage was caught during a routine treadmill test. There was no heart damage. Kruger has also had two back surgeries in 1982 and 2000, probably from diving on all those loose balls, and the hard knocks of college competition. And yes, Lon does play golf with OU’s famous country singer Toby Keith. Keith even has his own golf course in Norman. I doubt there’s any problem with tee times. Keith entertained at Kruger’s home in Las Vegas six years ago for a cancer awareness party.
We also talked a little about Lonnie’s time on my freshmen team, how I was there to meet him at the athletic dorm to move in his stuff when he first arrived on campus. The practices we had in Ahearn gym and the teaching of the two-handed chest pass, which Kruger said is seldom used now due to the quickness of the defensive players. But I did notice that Kruger has the best passing skills of all the Big 12 coaches when I watch the video clip advertising Big 12 basketball and see the coaches pass the ball around during the commercial. Kruger has the best wrist and finger snap on his two-handed chest pass, with arms extended and thumbs down — look for it next time you see that commercial. He learned that technique in Ahearn gym.
But of all the questions I intended to ask, the most important one of all was, “How do you stay as positive as a coach on the bench?” Kruger said, “I learned that from my dad. Dad always said if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Kruger also believes players learn best through positive reinforcement, and he wants to treat his players just like Rob Evans treated his son Kevin when he played for Evans at Arizona State.
I would concur, because my son Nick was a walk-on at K-State and and played two years for Coach Kruger 1989-90 after turning down a full scholarship offer to play at Washburn for another K-State player I recruited, Bob Chipman. Coach Chipman would have also treated Nick the way he was treated by Coach Kruger and it was a hard decision to turn down an offer from an outstanding coach like Chipman. But it all worked out for the best for Nick even though he had limited playing time. It was the experience that counted.
I talked to ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Franschilla who did the KU-K-State game in Bramlage on this past season. I took Tex Winter to the shoot-around the day before to meet KU coach Bill Self. When Fran learned that I coached Kruger, he said, “My son James is on the team at Oklahoma and went there to play under Coach Kruger so he could learn the game and then coach basketball after graduation. James told me how much he respects Coach Kruger because there’s no swearing or directed anger at any of the players in practice.” James told his dad, “The only time you can tell when Coach Kruger might be angry is when his chin tightens up.”
About the time we finished eating more of Coach Kruger’s close friends joined us, including Carl and Jill Gerlach, Gene and Bobby McVey and Patty Zender, widow of Bob Zender who played for me as a freshman and helped the “Fab Four” win the 1972 Big Eight championship. This is part of Kruger’s inner kitchen cabinet of close friends and he continues to stay in close touch with his other teammates from the Hartman-era years. In fact, Kruger invited about 15 of his closest friends and their spouses to his home in Las Vegas a few years ago for a reunion celebration.
We chatted with the group for a few minutes, but before I left, McVey said, “Coach Weigel, remember the time our freshmen team was invited to Ahearn one afternoon to scrimmage the varsity. Coach Hartman said he wanted a full-court pressure defense.” McVey continued, “The varsity was having trouble getting the ball up the court, so Hartman called timeout and instructed you not to play a harassing defense.” He concluded by saying, “Remember, you brought us over to the huddle and said, guys instead of playing a full-harass defense, I want you to play a “half-harass” defense so the varsity can get the ball in bounds.”
That brought a big laugh and we departed. I headed for those magic sliding glass doors to exit the hotel and the group went into the coffee shop for a brief visit before Coach Kruger headed to Bramlage with the team to take on K-State. Oklahoma lost the game, but it was a special day for all of us to remember, that even though Kruger didn’t return to coach his alma mater again, he did return home again to be close to his immediate family who live nearby. Having him back in the Midwest is also very special for those of us who can still call him Lonnie.