Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is already better at this Final Four thing than he was 22 years ago, when he made his first trip to the national semifinals as coach of the Florida Gators.
When Florida beat Boston College in the Elite Eight in 1994, no one with the school was especially prepared. Not administrators, not Kruger and his staff, not the players who had just delivered the first Final Four trip in school history.
“We didn’t know what we were doing. I saw the Oklahoma players had T-shirts and hats right there on the court. We didn’t have a T-shirt or a hat,” says former Florida guard Craig Brown, MVP of the East Region in 1994 and now director of operations at the NBA office in Hong Kong. “Nobody had anything prepared for us! We missed out big time. I’m pretty sure Oklahoma cut down both nets [they did], and we only cut down one. I remember sitting in the locker room and thinking, ‘Hey, Coach, we’re new at this. I think we left one of the nets up.'”
The evolution of Kruger into a two net-cutting, repeat Final Four coach is a study in consistency, competitiveness and character. The bespectacled, 63-year-old Kansas native has been at this for 30 years. He is just 10 victories away from joining the 600-win club, and among active coaches he’s 10th in victories and 14th in NCAA Tournament victories. He’s tied with John Calipari and Mark Few with 17 NCAA appearances but now has two more Final Fours than Few.
In fact, for the sake of perspective, here’s a list of legendary coaches who only made one Final Four: Lou Carnesecca, Everett Case, Bobby Cremins, Don Haskins, Jud Heathcote, Rick Majerus, Rollie Massimino, Digger Phelps, Norm Sloan and Billy Tubbs.
Kruger, though, isn’t interested in career validation. In a profession where a lot of men call attention to themselves and their accomplishments, that’s simply not the Kruger way. He enjoys the limelight like 8-year-olds enjoy broccoli.
Ask him what it means to return to the biggest spectacle in the college game after two-plus decades (the second-longest gap between trips, behind Hall of Famer Ray Meyer’s 36-year drought) and the word “I” never comes out of his mouth.
“The best part is seeing the satisfaction on the players’ faces,” Kruger says. “Knowing they’ve done something pretty special, done it together, in support of one another. How excited they are for the days ahead.
“As big as it was in 1994, it’s a lot bigger now. It’s crazier. There’s so much media, so many demands. You don’t even have time to watch all of the tape you want to watch,” he continues. “But I’m so happy for them. They’ve worked hard and have gratification for a job well done.”
Sooners star Buddy Hield was less than 4 months old when his coach made his first Final Four appearance. Kruger’s 1994 team didn’t have a Hield. It was a more post-oriented team than the perimeter-shooting Sooners of today. Florida had only two players who made more than 30 3-pointers; OU has four, including Hield with a nation-leading 146. The Gators attempted 545 3s; the Sooners have taken 879.
One of the things that has made Kruger successful is his ability to adapt. There’s a reason he has taken five schools to the NCAA tournament, one of only two coaches to do so (Tubby Smith is the other). If he has excellent guards, he’ll spread the floor and create opportunities to drive and kick (Buddy Ball). If he wants to funnel the ball into the post (who remembers Florida’s Dametri Hill and his “Da Meat Hook?“), he has a deep playbook of half-court sets to get the ball to the block.
“The way they play…we slowed it down. Each possession counted,” remembers Brian Thompson, another member of Kruger’s Final Four team at Florida. “If I went down and jacked up a 3 I would have been on the bench. This Oklahoma team, they put it up. But in a structured way.”
Thompson, who works in marketing and sales for American Property Restoration in Atlanta, was a high-energy defensive stopper for the Gators, who featured point guard and leading scorer Dan Cross, senior captain and 3-point marksman Brown, Hill and lanky forward Andrew DeClercq. That they’re all still in touch is a tribute to Kruger and the comfortable atmosphere he builds everywhere he goes – as well as the powerful camaraderie that springs from a run to the Final Four.
“Coach Kruger believes in a family-structured, team atmosphere. Nobody over the team,” Thompson says. “We took that to heart. Everybody had a role, and everybody agreed to it. That’s why we were so successful. He was so good at making everybody buy in. We had some hotheads, and he got them all to buy in.”
Thompson, who playfully will neither confirm nor deny that he was one of those hotheads, has also seen a more patient side of his former coach emerge with the Sooners.
“I was watching an Oklahoma game this year, and I think it was [Isaiah] Cousins who kicked a ball or threw a ball into the stands and got a technical, and Coach Kruger left him in the game,” Thompson says. “If I’d have done that you wouldn’t have seen me for the next three games.”
Kruger has a hearty laugh when told what Thompson had said.
“There’s probably some truth to that,” he says. “We’re a little more patient today than we were in 1994.
“I think that’s the primary thing we’ve learned over the years is it’s a process. When we started at Pan Am [University in Edinburg, Texas, where Kruger was the coach from 1982 to 1986] we just kind of expected everyone to be enthusiastic every day,” he continues. “But not everyone starts at the same point. Each guy is unique and has to be addressed as such. You’re staying positive and upbeat, reinforcing confidence. You work with each guy and help him get to the highest level he can reach.”
He has done that with Hield – who raised his scoring average more than 8 points per game this season and was the two-time Big 12 Player of the Year – and he did the same for Brown 22 years ago. Brown was an underappreciated shooting guard out of Steelton, Pennsylvania, who probably would have played at St. Bonaventure had it not been for a late offer to be part of Kruger’s first recruiting class in Gainesville.
Brown remembers Kruger as knowing which buttons to push and when. He recalled a home game from midway through the 1994 season against Mississippi State, which entered 13-4 and was just two years away from a surprising Final Four run of its own. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 12-0 lead. The Gators were clearly out of sorts. Kruger, not one to use timeouts hastily, called a halt to the action.
“I’m expecting him to blast us,” Brown sys. “I’m expecting him to really get into us. He grabs the dry-erase board and draws a big smiley face. He was just trying to take the edge off. He said, ‘Count to 10, take a deep breath, we’ll be OK.’ He trusted that it would all come together.”
It did. The Gators won 84-75 and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed after losing to Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship game.
Florida struggled with No. 14 seed James Madison in the first round, but that struggle really made things click. They disposed of Penn in the second round then had the good fortune to go to Miami for the regional semis and final. With a throng of Gators fans in South Florida, Kruger’s bunch upset No. 2 seed Connecticut in overtime in the Sweet 16, then zipped past Boston College thanks largely to three consecutive 3-pointers by Brown in a key stretch late in the second half.
The last of the trio of triples came off a wrinkle suggested in a timeout by assistant coach R.C. Buford, now the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. Kruger liked the idea, and Brown and his teammates executed it to perfection.
Buford spent only the one season at Florida, but it left an indelible mark on a man who has been part of five NBA world championship teams since, four as GM, and was the NBA Executive of the Year in 2014.
“I enjoyed my time working for Lon as much as any time in my basketball career,” Buford says. “He’s so consistent and his message is always clear. They’ve done an outstanding job building the program at Oklahoma, and their players have clearly grown.
“Lon is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball.”
Brown says he’s forever indebted to Kruger.
“It’s awesome to see him going back to the Final Four,” he says. “It’s just a credit to him and his ability to coach and to adjust to today’s players.
“What people don’t understand about him, what the media gets completely wrong [is] they see the image of this quiet guy who doesn’t yell or stomp around, but they don’t understand how competitive he is. He’ll twist up his lip, get this little scowl when you’re not executing. Certain players…that works for them. It worked for me. I could have gone a few other places coming out of high school. Choosing Florida and coach Kruger is still the best decision I have ever have made in my life. I’m blessed to have had that experience with him and my teammates.”
Now Kruger will lead another group into what surely will be the time of their lives. He will ensure they are well prepared to take on Villanova, but he also will make time for them to soak up all of the opportunities that this week provides
“In 1994, we probably thought this might happen occasionally, not knowing how difficult this was,” Kruger says. “We’ll make sure they share it with family and friends. The really great part is the memories they’re going to have for a lifetime.
“You don’t stop to think [that you might not return to the Final Four]. But gosh, it’s so difficult. There are so many good teams. Things have to go well, bounce your way on occasion,” he continues. “Our team this time…we didn’t play any upset winners. We played the teams we expected to have to play all the way through. That makes it even more gratifying. There weren’t any shortcuts.”
Kruger isn’t growing wistful or waxing nostalgic. He’s in his element, but there are no coaching slouches making the trek to Houston. North Carolina’s Roy Williams has won two national titles, and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim has one.
Kruger has a team that can win it all, but it will take playing just as well for two games as it has in its previous four. It’s potentially a career-defining moment for the coach, but that’s not something he’s buying into.
“My life is not going to change a lot in terms of happiness and things I enjoy and people we surround ourselves with if we cut the nets down on Monday night,” Kruger says. “It would be nice to be a part of that group that’s recognized and actually would be the only team ever to do it in Oklahoma basketball history. From that standpoint I’d be proud to be associated with this group because it has been special.”
Kruger expects a large contingent of fans clad in Crimson and Cream to be in Houston to root on the Sooners. He can rest assured some guys who used to wear Orange and Blue will be pulling for him, too.