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OU men's basketball: Lon Kruger delivers emotional goodbye to coaching after 45 years

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OU's Buddy Hield talks with coach Lon Kruger during the Sooners' loss to Villanova, Saturday, Apr. 2, 2016, during their game in the Final Four in Houston.

Over the last decade, Lon Kruger rarely wasn’t smiling during a news conference.

Win or lose, Kruger’s optimistic demeanor overshadowed anything his team did in the previous 40 minutes.

Friday morning was different.

Kruger sat in the same chair he has all season to field questions, yet this time for an emotional exit interview.

The 10-year OU men’s basketball coach called it quits Thursday and said farewell to the program he restored, taking the Sooners all the way back to the Final Four after they hit a turbulent time at the start of the decade.

Joined briefly by OU athletics director Joe Castiglione and university president Joseph Harroz, Kruger still radiated positivity in his retirement press conference, but he frequently paused as he was overcome with the emotions of the day.

Kruger’s been coaching for 45 years with stops at Texas-Pan American (now Texas-Rio Grande Valley), Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and Nevada-Las Vegas.

He won 674 games out of 1,106. At OU, he won 195 and lost 128.

Kruger guided OU to the Final Four in 2016, the Sweet 16 twice and became the first coach to take five different programs to the NCAA Tournament.

He developed the 2016 Wooden Award winner Buddy Hield and 2018 Wayman Tisdale Award winner Trae Young. He coached two other NBA draft picks, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler, and several All-Big 12 selections.

Pondering the relationships he built in Norman forced Kruger to take a second to collect himself.

There’s no telling how many similar moments were shared as he told his players and staff of his retirement on Thursday.

“That’s the most difficult part,” Kruger said. “Leaving guys that you’ve dealt with. I think the pandemic created a different relationship, because you’re leaning on each other so much.”

Kruger leaned on plenty through his 10-year run as the 14th head coach of the program.

A few factors led to Kruger’s decision to leave it behind.

The passing of his former assistant, Lew Hill, on Feb. 7 prompted conservations about retirement between he and his wife Barbara Kruger.

“When coach Hill passed,” Kruger said before taking a brief pause. “That hit hard.

“That got Barb and I talking more seriously about it.”

Family also drew Kruger to retirement.

He and his wife were ready to not miss so much of their children and grandchildren’s lives, especially with his son and former assistant coach, Kevin Kruger, recently taking UNLV’s head men’s basketball coaching position.

He still plans to be around in Norman, where he knew he would eventually retire when taking the job in 2011.

Castiglione initially struggled to convince Kruger to accept the position, but he eventually did and the Sooners were better for it.

Well wishes poured in from across the Big 12 and country from Kruger’s peers upon his announcement.

"I’m very happy for Lon to leave on his own terms,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement. “I wish him nothing but the best in retirement and being around Kevin, his family and the grandkids in Vegas, sounds like to me a pretty good way to spend retirement.

“… I know personally the respect he commands in our industry and I’m sure his former players, assistant coaches and everyone affiliated in his programs over time would attest to the way he went about his business."

The Silver Lake, Kansas, started his college coaching career as an assistant at Pittsburg State and built a winning portfolio everywhere he went.

While Kruger struggled at times to get through his answers as he reflected on what he’s accomplished, the 68-year-old coach and former player is ready for his next chapter.

“As much as we’ll miss it, we’re excited where we’re at,” Kruger said. “… Really fired up about what lies ahead.”

Joe Buettner

405-366-3580

Follow me @JoeBuettner

jbuettner@normantranscript.com

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