PRYOR, OK —
When Oklahoma hired Lon Kruger in 2011, the Sooner basketball program was in a nosedive.
Kruger replaced Jeff Capel, whose tenure will forever be synonymous with Blake Griffin and the Sooners' Elite Eight run in 2009. Since Griffin left, Capel — one of the the youngest coaches in the NCAA — seemed to be without direction.
Despite recruiting high-profile talents like Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin, Capel's teams struggled to sub-.500 records in 2010 and 2011 before Athletic Director Joe Castiglione pulled the trigger. Added to the on-court struggles were the lingering off-court tribulations involving former coach Kelvin Sampson and his questionable recruiting strategies,
Enter Kruger. The man is the college basketball equivalent of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction — he's the cleaner.
Kruger's reputation for taking underachieving teams to the postseason is legendary. He did so with four different schools before coming to Oklahoma, which he will presumably lead to the tourney this year, barring some complete meltdown in this week's Big 12 Tournament.
Castiglione has always had a keen eye for spotting (and keeping) coaching talent, like football coach Bob Stoops and women's hoops coach Sherri Coale.
Keeping Sampson before he left for Indiana and hiring Capel were not bad decisions on Castiglione's part, but in hindsight, they were bad fits at OU. Capel's early successes were based in large part on Griffin, who was initially recruited by Sampson and Blake's brother, Taylor.
Kruger, however, is a surefire winner. Despite being a niche coach who tends to move around a lot, even for a coach (I somewhat doubt he's owned a house in any of the college towns he's coached at), Kruger does what he does well. He builds teams the right way. After the turmoil the last two coaches put the Sooners through, he's exactly the coach Castiglione should have hired.
Kruger recruited the best class that Norman has seen in years. I don't mean necessarily the best incoming freshman class of players, but the the players he has recruited have the most class.
Take forward Romero Osby. He left his home state of Mississippi to be around a head coach like Kruger, who he has said molded him into a better player and person.
Since Kruger was hired, no player has left the program. No one has complained about playing time — even senior Andrew Fitzgerald, who started every game of his junior year under Kruger but has come off the bench this year as a senior to make room for some talented newcomers.
Kruger hasn't put together a group of players, he's put together a team.
I don't think I'm alone in hoping Kruger — who turns 61 in August — decides to retire in Oklahoma.