After 35 years as a college basketball head coach, Lon Kruger is ready to move into the next phase of his life.
Kruger, who starred at Kansas State in both basketball and baseball, announced his retirement from coaching Thursday. He had spent the past 10 years as the head coach of Oklahoma’s men’s basketball team.
“His track record of successfully rebuilding programs everywhere he coached is made even more impressive when considering how he did it,” Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. “He won with integrity, humility, class and grace. He did it with superior leadership skills and a genuine kindness that included his constant encouragement of everyone around him.”
Other remembrances poured in from his alma mater.
“The first word that comes to mind with Lon is admiration,” K-State men’s basketball head coach Bruce Weber tweeted. “I just admire the type of coach and person he is. He is one of the best to ever do it and an even better person off the court. He is also a tremendous K-Stater. I wish him and (his wife) Barb all the best in retirement!”
K-State’s men’s basketball Twitter account was equally effusive in its praise.
“A hall of famer on the court and in life. Thank you and congrats on retirement,” the account wrote.
“A Wildcat for life. Congrats on your retirement,” K-State Athletics’ official Twitter account wrote Thursday, tagging Kruger’s account in the tweet.
Kruger walks away with an overall record of 674-432 (.609) at the college level. His win total ranks 27th in Division I history; he was 10th among active coaches at the time of his retirement.
Kruger’s teams reached the NCAA Tournament 20 times, with five Sweet 16 appearances and a pair of Final Four berths (Florida in 1994 and Oklahoma in 2016).
Arguably his two most notable achievements:
• Kruger is the only head coach in Division I history to win an NCAA Tournament game at five schools (K-State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma).
• He also is the only coach (since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985) to lead four programs to the Sweet 16 or beyond.
Kruger also coached in the NBA, working as an assistant with the New York Knicks (2003-04) after three seasons as the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach (2000-03). He finished with a 69-122 record with the Hawks.
While he never reached the same heights in the NBA, Kruger made his mark in college — as a player and coach.
A standout prep career preceded that.
He was a three-sport star in Silver Lake, lettering all four years in football, basketball and baseball. During his senior season on the hardwood, he averaged 23 points per game in leading Silver Lake High to the state tournament. On the gridiron, he passed for 2,079 yards and 23 touchdowns in nine games. And on the baseball diamond, he helped the team make it to state while playing as a pitcher and infielder. He was part of the Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2006.
When Kruger first arrived in Manhattan, he joined K-State’s men’s basketball and baseball teams.
Kruger’s best season for the baseball team came in 1971, when he posted a 4-3 record (3-1 Big Eight) on the mound, with an earned run average of 3.33. That season, he recorded 38 strikeouts, against just 14 walks, in 46 innings of work. His accomplishments caught the eye of the pros, as he twice was selected in the MLB draft: 1970 (by the Houston Astros) and 1974 (by the St. Louis Cardinals).
Even though he never even played football for the Wildcats, that didn’t stop the Dallas Cowboys from inviting him to their rookie camp in 1974, planning to give him snaps at quarterback.
But Kruger’s best sport — and the one he’s synonymous with — always was basketball.
He was the first player legendary K-State head coach Jack Hartman ever signed for the Wildcats. Hartman’s decision paid off, as Kruger became one of the greatest players in school history.
Kruger led the Wildcats to consecutive Big Eight Conference championships (1972 and 1973), winning the league’s Sophomore of the Year award in the first title campaign. He then captured the league’s player of the year award in 1973 and 1974. Upon his graduation, Kruger ranked among the school’s all-time leader in points (1,063) and free throw percentage (.826). During his senior season, he averaged 17.6 points per game, pouring in a career-high 37 against Colorado. Kruger later was named to the Big Eight’s all-time team (third-team selection).
Kruger was inducted into the K-State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003.
He is one of only 10 Wildcats to have his jersey retired. He wore No. 12, the same as fellow K-State great Mike Evans; both had the number retired in 2006.
The Hawks picked him in the ninth round of the 1974 NBA draft, but he quickly found his lifelong love: coaching the game. He started his career as an assistant at Pittsburg State in 1976 before joining Hartman’s K-State staff the following year. He was an assistant under Hartman from 1977 to 1982 — a period of immense success for the program, as it went 103-49 (.678), including three NCAA Tournament bids and a Big Eight tournament title in 1980 — before becoming the head coach at Texas-Pan American.
He spent four seasons (52-59 record) in that role before returning to Manhattan to replace Hartman as K-State’s head coach in the spring of 1986.
In four seasons with the Wildcats, Kruger went 81-47 (.633) and became the first head coach in program history to take the school to the NCAA Tournament four straight seasons. In his debut campaign he went 20-11, making him the first K-State coach ever to win 20 games in his first season.
During his tenure, Kruger coached one All-American, four first-team All-Big Eight selections and two Big Eight Newcomers of the Year.
Kruger left K-State for the same position at Florida, where he spent six seasons (1990-96) and went 104-80. The highlight of his tenure came in 1994, when he took the Gators to the Final Four for the first time in program history.
He was hired at Illinois following the 1996 season, coaching the Fighting Illinois from 1996 to 2000. In those four years, he posted an 81-48 record, earning three NCAA Tournament berths and sharing the Big Ten title during the 1997-98 season.
After leaving Illinois for the Atlanta Hawks’ head coaching job in May 2000, he remained at the pro level until March 2004, when UNLV hired him as its newest head coach.
Kruger went 161-71 (.694) record in seven seasons with the Runnin’ Rebels. The program went to the NCAA Tournament in four of his final five seasons; prior to his arrival, UNLV only had appeared in two of the previous 15 tournaments. He posted a .743 winning percentage (127-44) and averaged 25.4 victories over his final five seasons in Las Vegas. In 2006-07, UNLV won 30 games and advanced to the Sweet 16.
He ended his career at Oklahoma, which tabbed him to lead its program on April 1, 2011.
In 10 seasons in Norman, Okla., Kruger went 195-128 (.604), leaving as the fourth-winningest coach in the Sooners’ annals. He made the NCAA Tournament seven times in his 10 years on the job, only missing the Big Dance once in his final eight seasons. He was the first OU coach to win six NCAA Tournament games within his first five seasons and earned the Big 12 Coach of the Year Award from the Associated Press following the 2013-14 campaign. The Sooners had six All-Big 12 first-team selections during Kruger’s tenure, highlighted by Buddy Hield’s illustrious career.
Hield, who played for Kruger from 2012 to 2016, won the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and the Oscar Robertson Trophy as the national player of the year in his final season. He also was named Big 12 Player of the Year in both 2015 and 2016, becoming only the second player in conference history to win the award twice. He left OU as the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer.
Kruger also recruited and mentored Trae Young, who was the first player in college basketball history to lead the country in both points and assists.
Four Sooners were selected in the NBA draft during Kruger’s tenure, including two in the top six. Young was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft while Hield was selected sixth overall in 2016.
Oklahoma’s two other selections were Isaiah Cousins (2016) and Romero Osby (2013), who both went in the second round of their respective drafts.
Though he might no longer be coaching full-time, Kruger won’t be far away from the game: UNLV hired his son, Kevin Kruger, as its new men’s basketball head coach earlier this week. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Thursday that the elder Kruger will move back to town in order to be closer to his son. The paper reports the elder Kruger bought a house in Las Vegas in December.