Thursday, December 14, 2017
Sports

Time for this nice guy to finally finish first

Lon Kruger's team is in the Final Four and a lot of people are wondering how.

If you could read in 1994, you might recall similar amazement over Kruger's team. Florida had even fewer marquee recruits then than Oklahoma does now. Yet the Gators made the Final Four, and for a few shining moments Kruger was praised like another Coach K.

Then he went back to being Lon Kruger, arguably America's most underappreciated college basketball coach. Remember his time in Gainesville?

"Lon is the guy who made Florida basketball," Bill Koss said. "I'll always believe that."

Koss played there 50 years ago and has been around the program since as a TV analyst, author and coaching confidant. Not enough people share his belief. Blame that on Billy Donovan. He came in with a bang as Kruger was going out with a whimper. Billy Ball made it impossible to fully grasp what Kruger accomplished.

Such is life for Lon. He comes in, cleans up programs, preaches old-school values and turns middling' recruits into winners. The problem is there's not much sex appeal when you're humble, unassuming and bland enough to proudly admit you love ABBA songs.

"I've never heard him say anything derogatory about anyone, never once," Koss said. "He always finds something constructive to say, even in the most difficult situations."

That took some doing in Gainesville. Basketball was in shambles when Kruger was hired. The NCAA and U.S. government were investigating recruiting violations and drug deals. Norm Sloan had stormed away. Dwayne Schintzius led a mutiny against interim coach Don DeVoe.

Kruger turned that hot mess into an NIT team by Year 2. Two years later, a team featuring 300-pound center Dametri Hill made it to the national semifinal game, losing to Grant Hill and Duke, 70-65.

Kruger restored order on the court and dignity off it. He'd send hand-written notes thanking cheerleaders for their work and congratulating minor-sport athletes on academic achievements. If only he could have made people love basketball as much as that other major sport. Attendance never took off. Big-time recruits kept going to brand-name schools. When Kruger left for Illinois two years later, it was an amicable divorce.

The Florida fizzle enhanced his reputation as a good-but-not-great coach. But Kruger's body of work is getting a fresh look under the bright lights of a Final Four. A lot has changed since that 1994 appearance, but Kruger hasn't. His Oklahoma team featured four guys who've started 104 straight games. None were among the nation's top 100 recruits, including All-American Buddy Hield.

"I'm just happy we've got a coach like coach Kruger to keep us level-headed every day," Hield said.

Now the public is realizing the appeal of Kruger's approach. Mr. Level-Headed is back. It's about time for such a nice guy to finish first.

— Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

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