By JOHN SHINN
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger’s family converged at Lloyd Noble Center on Sunday. They have been part of Selection Sundays 14 times since 1987 and at five different schools in four different parts of the country.
The first one at the new stop is always one to be relished.
“Selection Sunday has been a big part of our lives when you look down through the years. The first time at a new school is always a extra special,” Kruger said. “I’m so happy for the seniors. They hadn’t played in postseason. To see them on their phones calling family and calling friends right afterwards ... This is about a lot of things, but just to be able to have those memories for a lifetime.”
The Sooners experienced their first one since 2009 when the NCAA tournament bracket revealed they were the No. 10 seed in the South Region and will open second-round play at 8:10 Friday night against No. 7 seed San Diego State at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
However, getting the Sooners back in the NCAA tournament was something that seemed impossible. They were in the Elite Eight in 2009. Four Final Four banners hang from Lloyd Noble Center’s rafters.
Kruger’s reputation stems from revitalizing teams over his 27 seasons as a head coach.
In that sense, no coach has been better than Kruger than taking programs that have fallen on tough times and raising their level. OU is the fifth school Kruger has guided to the NCAA tournament. No coach has taken more than four to the Big Dance.
It’s a feat Kruger doesn’t thump his chest about it. He’s not one for bluster. But one also wonders why Kruger, 60, never simply settled down in one place and stayed.
Even Kruger can’t pinpoint why his coaching career became nomadic. He’s held six head coaching jobs over the last 27 seasons. The only one of those he knew wouldn’t be his final destination was the first one at Texas Pan American in 1982.
“It’s kind of turned out that way. It wasn’t a career path we planned on taking 30 years ago. We’ve never really planned on another job, maybe short of Pan American. We got Kansas State from there,” Kruger said. “But then every place we’ve been we’ve never looked for another job or asked for another job. It’s just worked out OK with different moves for different reasons. We’ve been pretty fortunate.”
Many figured when Kruger returned to his alma mater in 1986, the moving truck would never be needed again. He was one of the most decorated Wildcats ever and a former assistant coach.
Steve Henson was one of those who firmly believed Kruger would be at Kansas State for the rest of his coaching career. Instead, he was only there for Henson’s college career before going to Florida in 1990.
“At that time, I couldn’t understand why anyone would leave there for any reason. To me it was the greatest place in the world,” Henson said of Kansas State. “When he left to go to Florida, it made no sense to me. He interviewed at Texas after my sophomore year and that made no sense to me. It just didn’t make sense, at least that was my perception back then.
“Then he went to Florida and it was a great place to live, great campus, a lot of great things. All the moves have made sense, but the first one probably surprised me the most.”
Most would think a coach like Kruger that’s been at it for 27 seasons, but never for more than seven in one place, is habitually burning bridges on his way out of town.
For Kruger, that hasn’t been the case. Florida, which he led to a Final Four in 1994; Illinois, which he led to a Big Ten championship in 1998 and UNLV, which he took to the NCAA tournament four times in seven seasons after it had been just twice since going to the Final Four in 1991, all still talk about him favorably.
“Having a huge impact on a lot of people is very special to him,” said Henson, who has been an assistant on Kruger’s staff at Illinois — while Henson took a shot at the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks — UNLV and OU.
The impact he’s had on this group of Sooners — especially the seniors — illustrates the point.
He sold them on OU winning again and showed them how to go out and sell it.
“The first thing he did wasn’t even basketball, it was to change the perspective on campus as far as academics and how we carry ourselves. Those things really mean a lot to him. He’s really sincere about it,” senior forward Romero Osby said. “We knew the basketball things would come if we did the little things he talks about doing every day.”
Little has changed in the way Kruger has gone about resurrecting programs over the last four decades. The Xs and Os can change drastically from year to year and game to game. But how Kruger goes about it doesn’t change.
“The overall picture has been the same every day for as long as I can remember,” Henson said. “He’s steady and constant and trying to get his team better every day.”