Nice guys finish last, or so the saying goes.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger, synonymous for being one of the nicest figures in college basketball, watched his team show up on the big screen in the Lloyd Noble Center on Selection Sunday, signifying the Sooners landing the No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the sixth time in seven years Kruger and his Oklahoma club have received a bid for the Big Dance. Friday will mark Kruger’s 19th NCAA Tournament appearance in his decorated 33-year coaching career.
Despite the old saying, Kruger’s nice guy persona has consistently impressed those — whether it be those working for him, playing for him or growing up with him — closest to him. In his coaching career, Kruger has made the Final Four twice, as recent as 2016. Now in his 33rd season of coaching basketball, Kruger is on his way to Columbia, South Carolina, to take on No. 8 seed Ole Miss (20-12, 10-8 SEC).
“He has worked his magic again,” OU Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione said. “Not only looking at it at that standpoint, but getting us to a Final Four three years ago which is so very difficult to do. We do have certain teams that seem to get there more often, but they don’t get there every year. It’s so challenging.”
When talking to those close to Kruger, the words “genuine,” “sincere” and “respect” have a presence that undoubtedly can’t be ignored. But two words have repeatedly found themselves spoken when Kruger is the subject of conversation.
“Player’s coach,” said former Oklahoma power forward Ryan Spangler, who was apart of the 2016 Final Four team. “There’s a bunch of attributes, but I have to say player’s coach. Whatever type of player you are, he’ll make you successful.”
In the age of the one-and-done, Kruger prefers development over time, and growth of a senior class — now-Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young being the outlier — something he’s fond of with Spangler. When the Sooners went to the Final Four in 2016, Spangler, now-Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins were all seniors.
“He’s got a great feel for young people,” assistant head coach Chris Crutchfield said. “When you genuinely care and you sincerely care about people and what’s going on, they can tell.”
Spangler, a transfer from Gonzaga when being recruited by the Sooners, found that Kruger’s methods were different than a lot of coaches recruiting him. His approaches are less overbearing and more developmental.
“You don’t know it when you’re younger, but now that I’m older I realize you go through these recruiting processes and these coaches tell you ‘this is what’s going to happen to you, you’re going to get this much playing time, you’re going to get all this,’” Spangler said. “Kruger didn’t do any of that. He’s one of the only ones. That’s one thing I really liked about him.”
This season, Kruger has the oldest and most experienced squad in the Big 12 — six seniors, two graduate transfers and just one freshman. Some have made it all the way to the Final Four, others have only been to the first round and a few — such as graduate transfers Miles Reynolds and Aaron Calixte — have never been. Kruger has been to the Big Dance 18 times, has taken four schools to the Sweet 16. He is it the only coach to have a win in the NCAA Tournament with five different programs. Whether it’s coaching experienced or inexperienced players, it doesn’t matter. Kruger has the coaching to get his players to the next level, and he only wants to do one thing: lead his players.
“We’re always conscious of, I think, trying to look at things from a player’s perspective,” Kruger said. “What did I appreciate as a player? What did I enjoy as a player? What did I benefit most from as a player? We try to do that today from a coach’s perspective, but always with the mind of trying to create a culture in which players want to be around. They want to spend time in the gym. So, we’re always positive, always promoting confidence. We’re pretty consistent in all those goals everyday. We don’t bounce back and forth one day to the next.”
One thing that stands out to Crutchfield in his time working with Kruger is his intimacy with the team.
“When we first got here, what I thought was really unique was he’d come out to pre-practice, before practice started where the guys would move around and shoot around, he would make a point to go say something to each guy,” Crutchfield said. “Most of them would come through the office throughout the day and we’d see them throughout the day. He would make a point to go say something to each single player. Even a walk on. I thought that was unique. Most guys come through the floor all business, it’s work. He’d be walking around, shaking hands talking to guys. ‘How are you doing? How was your day? How’s your mom?’ before practice even started.”
Kruger has that same dream for those flying with him to Columbia.
“A feeling of family”
After Tuesday’s practice, before the Sooners flew to Columbia, assistant coach Kevin Kruger — Kruger’s son — watched his 6-month-old son, Wyatt, dribble a basketball from a distance. Kevin was always around when his dad was coaching, and even got witness Kruger taking the Florida Gators to the Final Four, when Kevin was 9-years-old.
“Really just a sports life,” Kevin said about his life growing up a coach’s son. “As you see Wyatt (Kruger) down there shooting, that was normal for us. In the fall we’d be outside throwing a football everyday. In the summer we’d be playing baseball, and then when winter came around, we’d be in the gym playing basketball. It really didn’t matter. As long as we were active and competitive, we were always doing something.”
Kruger is a family man, and it’s hard to miss the fact that he’s created an atmosphere for families. OU coaches bring their kids and the practices are open to the public, something that is not very common in the college basketball world.
“He really, and intentionally, brought a feeling of family he wanted people to buy in and make it feel like it was their program,” Castiglione said. “Our program, collectively. Not his program. He has been absolutely laser focused on that since day one.”
During games, Kruger will be standing by the bench on the opposite side of the court from the opposing head coach, and look like the polar opposite. It goes without saying that when one watches a college basketball game, they will see a fair share of coaches getting animated on the sideline. Kruger’s calm demeanor in games sticks out like a sore thumb.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t cuss,” Kruger said. “Parents didn’t. I haven’t thought too much about it. It’s just a matter of whether we choose to do it.... I've never associated yelling, cussing and ranting with competitiveness. Goodness, that's silly.”
Coaches don’t just yell at players either. Refs are an easy target for backlash and scrutiny from coaches. Kruger seems to never even look at an official funny.
“It would seem like once every game, some official would during a timeout stop by the table, tap on it, and say ‘Would you tell coach Kruger ‘hello’ for me?” Castiglione said. “I officiated games when he was in the SEC’ or ‘when he was in the Big 10’ or ‘when he was in the Mountain West Conference.’ They’d known him for a long time. They’d just tell him what a class act he is. I cannot tell you how many times that’s happened.”
This treatment has generated respect from officials all though Kruger’s career.
“I think he just treats people well,” Kevin said. “Regardless of what’s going on, he’s going to treat people with respect and admiration for them just trying to go out and win games. ADs, refs, assistants, managers, he’s going to treat them all the same.”
“He just wants to win and put you in a position to be successful.”
Oklahoma’s earning of a postseason spot didn’t come without struggle.
Although going 12-1 against out-of-conference opponents, the team went 7-11 in the Big 12, and even suffered a five-game losing streak. For a team to go 11-1 before January, then go under .500 for the latter half of the season, one would expect to see a head coach flat out mad on the sideline. Kruger kept his cool, even during a losing streak that started and ended with losses against Baylor.
“Even though he's mild-mannered, his words still carry weight,” forward Kristian Doolittle said. “You can go around and yell the same things that he would say calmly, but I don't think it would have the same effect. We're all grown men here. We don't have to yell at each other to get a point across.”
After the losing streak was snapped with a 71-62 win at TCU, the Sooners had a list of must-wins still ahead of them. The team went 3-2 to finish the regular season. Those three wins include an 81-68 win over then-No. 13 Kansas. The win was arguably the team’s biggest of the year, big enough to make the NCAA ignore their first round exit of the Big 12 Tournament. Earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament has given Kruger a little more time before saying goodbye to his senior class.
“I think their relationship has just kind of grown,” Kevin said. “Even the three years I’ve been here, the understanding has become greater over time like four-year players usually do.”
Kruger’s willingness to never change and his team’s ability to win — as seen in their out-of-conference record and late season turnaround to stay in the postseason conversation — could be enough for the Sooners to make a run in March.
“He’ll let you play your game at the end of the day,” James said. “He just wants to win and put you in a position to be successful. That’s what he does.”