Lon Kruger took a leap of faith. A college coach accepted general manager Pete Babcock’s odd offer to coach the Hawks. (This after Tom Izzo of Michigan State said no.) Having built a reputation as one the best at coaching amateurs, Kruger said, “What the heck — let’s try it with pros.”
The Hawks around the turn of the century qualified, if only just. They were 25-57 in Kruger’s first season, 33-49 in his second. They began the 2002-2003 season 11-16, and Kruger didn’t make it until 2003. He was fired the day after Christmas. A few hours earlier, the Thrashers — the Hawks’ sister franchise — had fired coach Curt Fraser. (Only in the A-T-L, kids.)
So there was Kruger, his leap of faith having gone splat. He’d left the college game having taken Kansas State, Florida and Illinois to the NCAA Tournament and the Gators to the 1994 Final Four. He was 50, which meant he had time to start again, but there was no guarantee he’d get another job as good as the three he’d had. And was he worried he’d thrown away a shining career to coach an NBA team gone bad?
Nah. Lon Kruger doesn’t do worried.
“I never thought about it from the standpoint of getting back here,” Kruger said Thursday, “here” being NRG Stadium, where his Oklahoma Sooners will play in the Final Four. “I loved the time with the Hawks. Losing was the only tough part of it. The people were great. Wouldn’t change anything other than I thought we’d go there, change the culture, help them win. We didn’t do that. Certainly that was our responsibility.
“But learned a lot from it. Getting fired was kind of humbling in a healthy way. Had us refocus. Maybe appreciate things a little bit more. But, no, I never wondered or thought about it.”
A couple of things about Kruger: He has a habit of omitting a sentence’s subject — usually it’s “I” or “we” — and he’s of unrelenting good cheer. He enjoyed the Hawks at a time when nobody else did. Of the 12 men who’ve coached the Hawks since their move from St. Louis, he was, on the record, the worst. His winning percentage over 2 1/3 seasons was .361.
College employers didn’t care. They’d seen what Kruger had done in three major conferences. (And maybe they hadn’t paid much attention to those Hawks. We in Atlanta never did.) After another year spent in the NBA as a Knicks assistant, Kruger was named head coach at UNLV.
By 2007, he was back in the Big Dance. His Runnin’ Rebels, a No. 10 seed, upset Georgia Tech and then Wisconsin. Kruger’s mirror-image son Kevin made the inbounds pass than undid the Yellow Jackets and the 3-pointers that felled the Badgers. Lon Kruger seemed set in Vegas. Then Oklahoma, which fired Jeff Capel in 2011, called.
Kruger: “Loved living in Las Vegas. Great people. Really enjoyed seven years. Thought that would be our last stop, really did. Then when Joe (Castiglione, the Oklahoma athletic director) came onboard, we talked about a lot … We would take one more run at it.”
Twenty-two years after his first Final Four, Kruger is back for a second. (That’s the second-longest gap between FFs No. 1 and No. 2, DePaul’s Ray Meyer having gone in 1943 and 1979.) Kruger takes little credit, pointing instead to the great guard Buddy Hield. Kruger’s middle name is Duane, but it might as well be “humble.”
Indeed, when Kruger proposed his infamous Hawks guarantee — “We make the playoffs or you get $125 back” — nobody could believe it was him talking. (He was just trying to create a buzz. But the Hawks didn’t make the playoffs.)
That happened in 2002. Kruger doesn’t distance himself from it. “Shoot, I’ve got a great wife, beautiful kids, grandkids,” he said Thursday. “So winning or losing, I’ve never worried too much about that. I’ve been blessed in every way. That was a really healthy experience for us in Atlanta.”