Oklahoma coach Kruger returns to Final Four 22 years later
Mar. 29, 2016
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Lon Kruger last coached in the Final Four in 1994. That's before most of his current players were born.
Back then, Kruger was coaching at Florida. Bill Clinton was president, the Internet was relatively new and pagers were more popular than cellphones.
Twenty-two years later, Oklahoma's coach has adjusted to the changes in the game and technology and has a shot at his first national title. The Sooners face Villanova on Saturday in a national semifinal in Houston.
Kruger, 63, continues to reach his young players with old-fashioned elements.
"Coach Kruger's a great coach, and he's very genuine, and those are things that can transcend age," forward Khadeem Lattin said. "He's genuine and honest. Whether you're 100 or 12, if you're genuine and honest, everybody kind of flocks to those kinds of people, and he's that type of person."
Kruger has guided five different programs to the NCAA Tournament: Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma. He led Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988, Florida to the Final Four in 1994, UNLV to the Sweet 16 in 2007 and Oklahoma to the Sweet 16 last year.
Now, he has received one of the most meaningful rewards for a coach — he's watched his players work hard all year and accomplish something life-changing together. He remembers the Florida Final Four squad and said that, though times have changed, the impact of such an accomplishment is the same.
"It's special because, even though they don't fully realize it right now, there are some memories that they'll have for a lifetime," he said. "The bond that this group will have forever from going to the Final Four as a team — they don't fully understand how powerful that is 10 years from now, 40 years from now."
That's the kind of wisdom that made star guard Buddy Hield comfortable when Kruger suggested he return to school after he considered leaving following his junior year.
"He can guide me if I'm struggling," Hield said. "I've built up a relationship with him. I trust him. A teacher that's been in the game so long — you can't go wrong with that."
Oklahoma went 27-36 combined in the two years before Kruger took over in 2011. Now, the Sooners are in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year and have reached the Final Four for the first time since 2002.
Kruger's steadiness was evident when Oklahoma hit a rough patch in February. Even after the Sooners squandered a 26-point lead against Baylor late in the season and had to rally for the win, he didn't panic.
"We haven't played great the whole time, but it's not like the ship's burning," he said at the time. "We had a lot of good stretches of play. He had our best stretches of play over the last month, and we've also had two really bad stretches of play. So we've got to kind of focus on both and learn from one and try to do the other better."
The Sooners bounced back and have won nine of their past 11 games. Now, there's one more thing the players want to do for Kruger — get him that national title.
"It's been a good four years here," forward Ryan Spangler said. "We want to finish it off right. The biggest thing is he's helped us on the court and off the court and made us better men."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .