Lon Kruger and the NCAA Tournament are synonymous. No other coach in Division I history has taken more programs to the NCAA Tournament than the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners. Only Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith has equaled Kruger’s record of leading five different schools into the tournament.
On Saturday, Kruger will lead his Sooners into the national semi-finals against the Villanova Wildcats. It will be Oklahoma’s first appearance since 2002 and fifth overall.
Kruger is making his second appearance coaching in the Final Four. Many in Florida likely remember his first.
One of Kruger’s biggest success stories was told in Gainesville. In 1994 he led the Florida Gators not only to the Big Dance, but also to their first trip to the Final Four.
The success of the Gator program under the 63-year-old native of Silver Lake, Kansas, was one of the best feel-good stories of any Florida sports programs. Not on the same level of basketball and football championships, but it demonstrated Kruger’s ability to rebuild a program and take it to levels never previously achieved.
When Kruger was hired for the 1990-91 season, Florida was on probation for numerous NCAA violations from the Norm Sloan regime. Scholarships were taken away, making it difficult to recruit.
Also, the Gators’ first two NCAA Tournament appearances in 1987 and 1988 were scrubbed from the books. It is like they were never there.
With all of that, Kruger had to restore the Gator program the right way. He brought in players like Andrew DeClercq, Demitri Hill, Craig Brown, Dan Cross and other “winners.”
In his second year, Kruger’s Gators went 19-14 and qualified for the NIT, making it to the semi-finals in New York. In 1993, Florida again appeared in the NIT.
Finally in 1994, these players were seasoned and had had a winning attitude instilled by their coach. That attitude was described as “find a way” to win. They did, big time.
Florida went 23-6 in the regular season and finished runner-up to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. After receiving a three seed in the East Region, Florida went on to defeat James Madison, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Boston College to reach the Final Four.
“You always wonder how teams are going to be remembered,” said Kruger. “This one will be remembered as a team filled with unselfish players who trusted one another completely; players who had a complete lack of ego. In terms of being special, this group goes off the scale.”
The Gators lost to Duke 70-65 in the semi-finals with Arkansas winning the title two days later.
Kruger would leave Florida following the 1996 season and land first in Illinois, then Nevada-Las Vegas. His teams made the NCAA Tournament a combined seven times under his leadership.
He then found his latest home in Oklahoma. The Sooners have made the tournament the last four seasons, but are now thinking much bigger. Kruger has the kind of superstar in Buddy Hield that other coaches can only hope for. For his part, Hield and his teammates believe in their coach.
“Coach Kruger has been awesome to us,” Hield said on Monday. “He teaches us every day how to handle ourselves on and off the court and in the classroom and with the media. He’s like a father figure to us.”
That clearly summarizes why Lon Kruger has found success at every stop. If he can win two more games, he will finally reach the pinnacle.