Coming off of his 33rd season as a collegiate head coach, Lon Kruger has built his career on the foundation of hard work, humility, integrity and service. From becoming the first Division I coach to guide five different schools to the NCAA Tournament to his dedicated work with Coaches vs. Cancer, Kruger has established a reputation as a genuine leader, winning coach and community champion.
Kruger recently wrapped up his eighth campaign as head coach at Oklahoma with the 2018-19 season. After inheriting a program that went 27-36 (.429) in the two seasons prior to his arrival, Kruger has coached the Sooners to a 160-105 (.604) record in his eight years in Norman and has reached the NCAA Tournament in six of the past seven seasons.
One of Kruger’s signature accomplishments has been the rebuilding stamp he’s put on college basketball programs throughout his career. He was the first Division I coach to take five different schools to the NCAA Tournament and is the only coach to win an NCAA Tournament game with five programs. In 2015, he became the first and only coach since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to take four programs to the Sweet 16 or beyond. He is one of only three head coaches to ever lead four schools to multiple NCAA Tournament wins.
With a career record of 639-409 (.610), Kruger boasts the 10th-most career wins among active coaches and 30th most all time. In 2017, he became the 33rd head coach to win 600 Division I games in the history of college basketball.
Kruger owns a 21-19 record in NCAA Tournament games and has compiled 17 20-plus-win seasons, including 10 in his last 14 years.
Oklahoma wasn’t the first rapid turnaround under Kruger. When Kruger took over the Florida job in 1990, the Gators were coming off of a 7-21 season. Four years into the role, Kruger guided UF to the 1994 Final Four. Kruger is one of just two head coaches (also Rick Pitino with Kentucky and Louisville) to inherit two teams coming off a sub-.500 year and take both to the Final Four within the first five seasons as head coach.
A staple of the NCAA postseason, Kruger has taken five different schools to the Big Dance. His collegiate teams have made postseason appearances in 23 of the last 30 years. He has guided teams to 19 NCAA Tournaments, five Sweet 16s and two Final Fours.
As hard as Kruger works to achieve excellence on the hardwood, he is just as committed to his role as a community leader in the fight against cancer. Kruger is in his first year as council chair of Coaches vs. Cancer, a nationwide program partnering with the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Kruger has been a member of the Coaches vs. Cancer Council since 2007 and has been a longtime supporter of the American Cancer Society.
Kruger’s accolades both on and off the court have earned him multiple recognitions over recent years. In 2017, Kruger was honored with the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Metropolitan Award for long and outstanding service to men’s college basketball.
Before the start of the 2018-19 campaign, the John R. Wooden Award selected him as the 2019 recipient of its Legends of Coaching Award. Created in 1999, the Legends of Coaching honor recognizes college coaches who exemplify Coach Wooden’s high standard of coaching success and personal integrity. The honorees are selected based on character, success on the court, graduation rate of student-athletes in their basketball program, coaching philosophy and identification with the goals of the John R. Wooden Award.
As this year’s recipient, Kruger joins a prestigious list of previous honorees that includes Geno Auriemma, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Bill Self, Dean Smith, Pat Summit and Roy Williams. He will be awarded the honor during the fifth annual ESPN College Basketball Awards on April 12, 2019.
Kruger rebuilt the Sooners upon his arrival in Norman. His 111 wins in the first five seasons are the second most through the first five seasons of coaching at OU (Billy Tubbs went 115-49 from 1980-85). He was the first coach in OU history to win six NCAA tournament games within his first five seasons. Following the 2013-14 season, he was voted the AP Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Under Kruger, Sooner players have earned First-Team All-Big 12 selections on four occasions and racked up 26 Academic All-Big 12 honors. Buddy Hield, who played four seasons for Kruger (2012-16), was named the winner of the 2016 Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and the Oscar Robertson Trophy as the national player of the year (first consensus player of the year for OU since Blake Griffin in 2009). Hield was named Big 12 Player of the Year in both 2015 and 2016 (second player in conference history to win the award twice) and exited OU as the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer.
Kruger mentored Trae Young – the first player in college basketball history to lead the country in both points and assists. Oklahoma’s 11th Consensus All-America First Team selection, Young set program, conference and NCAA records throughout his lone season with the Sooners.
Four Sooners have been drafted into the NBA during Kruger’s tenure, including two in the top six. Young was taken as the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft while Hield was selected as the sixth overall choice 2016. Isaiah Cousins (2016) and Romero Osby (2013) were chosen in the second round of their respective drafts.
Kruger’s effective communication and teaching skills with his players aren’t the only reasons for the Sooners’ quick recension on the ladder of hoops relevancy. He has also taken a lead role in the program’s community outreach efforts, positively impacting the lives of local residents and reinforcing the favorable manner in which they view the OU program.
Kruger, who was named the Sooners’ 14th head coach on April 1, 2011, arrived in Norman already armed with first-hand awareness of OU’s rich basketball history from an opponents’ perspective. As both a player and coach at conference foe Kansas State, Kruger had many battles against the tradition-laden Sooners.
A native of Silver Lake, Kan., Kruger acknowledged that location was also a factor in his decision to accept the offer to coach the Sooners.
“My wife, Barb, and I have lived in a lot of places, but we were raised in middle America and that has always been home for us,” he said. “We never knew if the opportunity would present itself to get back there, but it did in this case, and it came at a great university.”
What makes Kruger’s 600-plus wins and NCAA Tournament trips with five different programs even more impressive than they might first seem is the condition of the programs when they hired him and the rebuilding jobs he faced at each. In the year before his arrival as head coach at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma, the schools combined for a 78-99 record (.441). Kruger’s teams went a combined 92-89 (.508) in his first year at those schools, 117-72 (.619) in his second year, 114-74 (.606) in his third year and 115-49 (.697) in his fourth season. He directed all six programs to 20-win campaigns and took each of the last five to the NCAA Tournament or NIT by his second year. Not only has Kruger taken Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament, he has guided each to at least two appearances and one win in college basketball’s marquee event.
Immediately prior to coming to Norman, Kruger compiled a stout 161-71 (.694) record in his seven years at UNLV. He coached the Runnin’ Rebels to the NCAA Tournament four of his last five seasons after the program appeared in only two of the previous 15 tournaments, and also helped achieve UNLV’s first national ranking since 1992-93. Over his final five seasons in Las Vegas, Kruger’s teams posted a .743 winning percentage (127-44) and averaged 25.4 victories. His 2006-07 squad won 30 games and advanced to the Sweet 16.
He took over a UNLV program in 2004 that had gone through a period of significant instability with nine different head coaches in the previous 13 seasons. Over that span, UNLV made just two NCAA Tournament appearances, both first-round exits.
The success of the program during Kruger’s tenure was reflected in the crowds in Las Vegas. UNLV’s 2009-10 attendance numbers at the Thomas & Mack Center were the largest since Jerry Tarkanian’s final season (1991-92), and the Runnin’ Rebels were No. 18 overall in attendance and No. 1 on the West Coast.
Kruger, 66, began his head coaching career in the 1982-83 season at Texas-Pan American, where he compiled a four-year mark of 52-59, including a 20-8 record in the final season
From there he left for his alma mater of Kansas State where he was 81-46 (.638) in four seasons. Each of his K-State squads qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and the 1988 team was one of the best in the school’s history with 24 wins and a trip to the Elite Eight.
Kruger then moved to Florida where he led the Gators to a 104-80 (.565) mark with an appearance in the 1994 Final Four. After six years at UF, he went to Illinois for a four-year run. His teams were 81-48 (.628) with three NCAA Tournament appearances.
A four-year stint in the NBA – three as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks (69-122) and one as a New York Knicks assistant – followed before he returned to the college ranks at UNLV in 2004.
As a player, Kruger helped lead Kansas State to back-to-back Big Eight Conference titles in 1972 and 1973. After being touted as the Big Eight Sophomore of the Year in 1972, he was honored as the league’s player of the year in 1973 and 1974. He ranks 19th on the school’s career scoring list with 1,063 career points and has the fourth best career free throw percentage (.826) in school history. As a senior, he averaged 17.6 points per game and ranks in the top 20 on the school’s career scoring average list with a 13.3 points-per-game average. His best single-game scoring total was 37 points vs. Colorado as a senior.
Kruger was selected to the all-time All-Big Eight Team (third team) and was named “Mr. Hustle” all-time in the Big Eight. An Academic All-American as a senior, he also earned All-Big Eight academic honors two times and was the first player to capture Kansas State’s coveted Porky Morgan Most Inspirational Player Award three times. On Feb. 8, 2006, Kruger was honored during a halftime ceremony at a Kansas State game by having his No. 12 jersey retired.
He was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the ninth round of the 1974 NBA Draft. He also starred on the baseball diamond for Kansas State and was drafted by the Houston Astros in 1970 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1974. During his Wildcat baseball career he posted his best season in 1971 when he went 4-3 as a pitcher (3-1 in Big Eight games) and had an earned run average of 3.33. He struck out 38 and walked 14 in 46 innings. An all-around athlete, Kruger even got some football notice after graduating from KSU when the Dallas Cowboys invited him to their 1974 rookie camp as a quarterback.
A prep standout at Silver Lake High School, Kruger lettered all four years in football, basketball and baseball. As a senior, he averaged 23 points per game in leading his team to the state basketball tournament, passed for 2,079 yards and 23 touchdowns in nine football games and led the baseball team to the state tournament as a pitcher/infielder. In 2006, Kruger was honored by being inducted into the Topeka and Shawnee County Sports Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class.
Born on Aug. 19, 1952, Kruger graduated from Kansas State in 1975 with a degree in business and earned his master’s degree in physical education from Pittsburg State in 1977. He and his wife, Barbara, have two children: daughter Angie, who is a medical school graduate from the University of Florida and who practices obstetrics and gynecology, and son Kevin, who graduated from Arizona State University and played at UNLV for his senior season, starting at point guard for his father’s 2006-07 squad. Kevin is now in his third season as an assistant coach for OU.
Kruger has been involved in a host of charities, especially the Coaches vs. Cancer program. As founder and chairman of the Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Golf Classic, Kruger’s leadership has helped the event raise over $3.5 million over the last 11 years.
In 2017, Kruger was a recipient of the American Cancer Society’s prestigious St. George National Award for his extraordinary service to the community in support of the Society’s mission to save lives and lead the fight for a world without cancer. Kruger was also recognized in 2012 with the Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award and in 2009 with the Legacy and Leadership Visionary Award from the ACS Las Vegas region.
While at Florida, the Krugers were honored with consecutive Community Service Awards from the Gainesville Community Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, and in 1995 Lon was named the Gainesville (Fla.) Volunteer of the Year. From 1991-93, the couple served as co-chairpersons of Alachua County’s Red Ribbon Campaign, a week-long program aimed at increasing awareness and promoting a drug-free environment.
During the Krugers’ stay in Atlanta, Barbara was also involved in charity work, especially with “My House,” a transitional home for children 1 to 3 years old.
In Las Vegas, she was on the board of directors for Safe Nest, a domestic violence shelter, was a member of the Las Vegas Paradise Sertoma Club, which provides educational scholarships for the deaf, and is also a sustaining member of the Junior League. Additionally, she is involved with PEO Sisterhood. The Krugers also spent time helping the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
Kruger was involved with many causes in Las Vegas and assisted, among others, the NCI and the ACS, the Clark County School District, Southern Nevada Health District with childhood obesity, the City of Las Vegas recreation and youth sports, the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
In 2008, Kruger released his first book, “The Xs & Os of Success: A Playbook for Leaders in Business & Life.” The book, which highlights the parallels between coaching a sports team and leading others in non-sports settings, consists of 40, five-minute lessons conducive to leadership, life and teamwork. It uses sports as a way to tell the story and a way to make things tangible. All proceeds earned by Kruger from the book are being donated to the Clark County School District’s School-Community Partnership.