Oklahoma finally made an offer that Lon Kruger couldn’t refuse.
After turning down athletic director Joe Castiglione several times, Kruger agreed Friday to leave the job he’s held at UNLV for seven seasons and start another rebuilding project as the Sooners’ head coach.
“I have lived in a lot of places, but I was raised in middle America and that has always been home for me,” Kruger said in a statement released late Friday night by Oklahoma.
“We never knew if the opportunity would present itself to get back there, but it did in this case, and it came at a great university.”
Terms of Kruger’s contract were not released, but he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he accepted a seven-year deal that will double his pay to about $2.2 million annually.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say money was a consideration. But it was not only money. It was the challenge and the opportunity,” Kruger told the newspaper. “It was very enticing. I’ve never planned to leave any job.”
The 58-year-old Kruger has made a career of turning around struggling college programs and taking them to the postseason.
He was 161-71 in seven seasons with the Runnin’ Rebels, taking them to the NCAA tournament four of the past five years. UNLV won the national title in 1990 and lost in the championship game the following year, but had been back to the NCAAs only twice in 12 years before Kruger’s arrival.
UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood said Kruger “helped to redefine UNLV basketball” and left the program in good shape for success in the short term and beyond.
“He is a strong leader and, like strong leaders do, they leave things better than they found them and we will benefit from that. Our next head coach will benefit from that,” Livengood said, adding that he had already begun his search for a replacement.
Castiglione said Kruger “had a good situation there and was happy,” so he had to be “persistent in presenting a position that might hold some appeal for him.”
Kruger has 479 college wins in a 25-year career that includes stops at Kansas State, Florida and Illinois. He also coached the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks for three seasons.
Kruger replaces Jeff Capel, who was fired March 14 after five seasons in charge in Norman.
“Lon Kruger wins with class, and in the coaching realm, I don’t know if the praise gets any higher,” Castiglione said in a statement. “His background, ranging from regular trips to the NCAA tournament to his time in the NBA, is among the most unique and complete in college basketball.
“He has demonstrated the ability to manage a program across the board, and the results speak for themselves. We have placed our program in the hands of a true professional and one of the most respected coaches in the country.”
Kruger inherits a program coming off its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1967 and under investigation by the NCAA after former player Keith “Tiny” Gallon said he took money from a Florida financial adviser to pay for his high-school transcripts and enroll at Oklahoma.
That investigation came just as the Sooners’ probation for major rules infractions under Kelvin Sampson, Capel’s predecessor, was about to expire.
“Lon Kruger is the best choice for the University of Oklahoma,” Oklahoma president David Boren said. “He has outstanding coaching ability and a commitment to the highest ethical standards. He will provide strong leadership to our program.”
It’s hardly the first time Kruger has been asked to get a program headed in the right direction.
He took his alma mater, Kansas State, to four straight NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history from 1987 to 1990, then took a faltering Florida program to the Final Four in 1994. His next stop was Illinois, where he led the Fighting Illini to their first Big Ten title in 14 years, before his foray into the NBA.
Kruger has taken his teams to the NCAA tournament 13 times, reaching the round of 16 or beyond three times.
He leaves a UNLV program that will have four starters back from a team that went to the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons.
“The people and especially our players at UNLV mean a great deal to me,” Kruger said. “This was a difficult decision for me because of our team and the people of Las Vegas. I was privileged to be associated with them.”
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