Fans know that former Kansas State basketball star Lon Kruger announced his retirement last week from coaching the men’s basketball team at Oklahoma University.
He will be remembered as one of only three coaches ever (the others being Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith) to lead five programs — Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, and Oklahoma — to the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Final Four with the Florida Gators and Oklahoma Sooners.
I’ll remember him from the time I first saw him play high school basketball in January 1969 at the Dodge City Tournament of Champions. I was there as a Kansas State basketball assistant coach, looking for prospects to recruit.
Kruger was playing for Silver Lake, population 800, located 10 miles west of Topeka. He was all state in football, basketball and baseball. We knew he wanted to play both basketball and baseball in college, so we invited him for a campus visit in 1969 during his junior year of high school. K-State head basketball coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and baseball coach Bob Brazier agreed to a 50/50 full scholarship arrangement if Kruger chose K-State to play both sports.
Back then, a fall campus visit included a tour, lunch and a VIP seat in the press box at a home football game. During Lonnie’s tour, I realized we were running out of time and would miss the start of the game. I called my wife Kay and asked if she could fix us a quick lunch. Kay had a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich waiting before we headed to the stadium.
We felt good about Lonnie’s visit, but I returned to Dodge City in January 1970 to watch him play again. But this time, I was equally impressed by the play of Southwestern Heights’ 6-foot-8 senior, Gene McVey. SW Heights was located near Kismet (population 500), 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 we now added McVey to our prospect list. Finding two Division I prospects in Kansas during the same tourney was a nice surprise.
Later, McVey signed a letter of intent and was awarded a basketball scholarship, but Kruger did not commit. Kansas State got a lucky break. Kruger was waiting to decide about college 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 Lonnie’s dad Don (who was a major influence in his life) told him to hold out for a better deal. A better deal never came.
That left the door open for Cotton’s successor, Jack Hartman. Hartman, at the urging of Fred White (sportscaster for WIBW radio and TV in Topeka), signed Kruger to play for Kansas State in midsummer 1970, about the same time he hired me to become Kruger’s freshman coach. Two other outstanding freshmen prospects, Danny Beard and Larry Williams, already had committed, in addition to McVey.
I nicknamed Kruger, McVey, Williams and Beard “The Fab Four” because of their close relationship. I let them decide who was going to be John, Paul, George and Ringo. But what’s even more remarkable: they bonded like brothers during their freshmen year and still maintain close ties today, largely because of the leadership and respect they have for Kruger.
1970 was the last year for NCAA men’s freshmen basketball. They discontinued the practice, and freshmen could play on the varsity the next year.
When I interviewed “The Fab Four” in August 2013, Kruger said, “I knew if I was going to college, it was going to be Kansas State. Holding out was just a matter of trying to decide, ‘Should I play baseball, or go to K-State even though I was recruited for basketball by other colleges?’”
McVey heard about Kruger’s signing while driving a tractor on his farm during the summer when his mom waved him down to tell him.
“Kruger was a real player who could see out of his left ear while driving down the lane,” McVey said. “Besides Lonnie, our wives had a lot to do with the bond among the four of us, because it seems like we all grew up together as couples after we left college.”
“Without a doubt we all found the best ladies to call our wives and they also have a great relationship.”
Beard and Kruger were longtime roommates.
“I could not have asked for a better situation to adjust to being so far from home,” Beard said. “His parents took me in like I was one of their sons. We made many trips to Silver Lake, and I enjoyed the biggest steaks I had ever seen in my life.”
Williams also has fond memories of his college days with Kruger.
“I don’t think it’s just one thing why this happened,” he said. “We did everything together the first day on campus back in 1970. Family was important because we all came from small towns. Lonnie is a natural leader and galvanized everything from the start when he opened his home to all of us. We went to Silver Lake periodically, and his parents, Don and Betty, made us feel part of the Kruger family.”
Kruger said “the doors were always open to welcome teams and players to our home” as long as he could remember.
“Mom and dad loved having teams out to the house for pre-game meals,” he said, “and enjoyed their parental role for those players who wanted and needed that type of relationship.”
“The Fab Four” went on to help Kansas State win two consecutive Big 8 (now Big 12) championships during their sophomore and junior years in 1972 and 1973. The Wildcats finished second in the conference their senior year.
I believe Kruger was destined to become a Hall of Fame coach because he treated his players as family which he learned at a very young age from his parents.
During his retirement press conference, Kruger said, “It comes always back to players. Players get it done. I think our function in all of that is — whether you’re a parent or a business owner or a coach or a teacher — to create an environment, create a culture in which players love being around. If they’re in the office a lot, if they’re coming by practice early, if they’re staying late, you know they want to be around us. Then we’ve got a better chance to realize their potential and do as well as they possibly can.”
Congratulations, Coach Kruger, on your impressive career.
When I think of you, that bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich still comes to mind.