CHAMPAIGN — Lon Kruger retired with a plan.
The former Illinois coach and his wife, Barb, will bounce between his home in Oklahoma and Las Vegas and Nashville, Tenn., to see his children and grandchildren. And don’t be surprised to find Kruger on the golf course more frequently than just the May-September basketball offseason.
“This will be the first time I’ve played the month of October through April,” Kruger said. “There will be more rounds, but that doesn’t always correlate with better.”
Kruger announced his retirement Thursday after spending the last 10 seasons at Oklahoma, which was his longest stint with any program. The Kansas State grad also coached at Texas-Pan American (now Texas-Rio Grande Valley), Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, with the Atlanta Hawks and UNLV before finishing his career in Norman, Okla.
Kruger might also be getting out at just the right time. The likelihood of a penalty-free, onetime transfer this offseason has flooded the transfer portal. The number of players in the portal has nearly matched last year’s total that ultimately topped 1,000 available, and there are still four days left in March.
“Managing your roster is going to become maybe the No. 1 priority,” Kruger said. “You really won’t know what a roster is until maybe late May, June, by the time all the shuffling goes on. One guy might think he’s staying in a program, but the coach brings in someone else at his position and all of a sudden he’s leaving. It’s going to be a trickle-down effect from the Power Five conferences to so-called mid-majors. It will be very interesting to see how that transpires.”
Kruger won’t have to deal with near constant roster churn. His son will. Kevin Kruger was named UNLV’s new coach a week ago following two years as an assistant after T.J. Otzelberger left for Iowa State.
The time Kruger spends in Las Vegas, though, will be as a fan only. He’s retired.
“He’s always thought like a head coach as a point guard,” Kruger said about his son. “Sometimes it’s right place, right time, and I think that was the case here. Vegas is home for him. … The AD there and president there really liked Kevin and felt like he was ready to do it. They want continuity. They want stability. Kevin doesn’t see it as a stepping-stone job. He wants to be there, and he wants to get that Rebel program back to the heights it’s been at in the past. He’ll have fun getting after it.”
Lon Kruger spent seven seasons of his own coaching at UNLV, his reintroduction back into college basketball after a brief run with the Atlanta Hawks. The Runnin’ Rebels wound up being one of five teams Kruger took to the NCAA tournament, making him one of just three coaches — along with Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith — to accomplish that feat.
Three of Kruger’s four Illinois teams made the NCAA tournament, with the 1997, 1998 and 2000 Illini all advancing to the second round and no further. Kruger was 81-48 overall and 38-28 in the Big Ten in his stint in Champaign, which included a Big Ten regular-season title in 1997-98. That championship team was senior-heavy with Jerry Hester, Jarrod Gee, Kevin Turner, Brian Johnson and Matt Heldman.
“They just meshed so well together,” Kruger said. “They liked each other. They understood what each needed to do to make the team successful, and they trusted that each would take care of that. It was a great group. They worked hard, they competed like crazy and stepped up when they needed to win a championship.”
Kruger has followed Illinois since he left Champaign for the NBA after the 2000 season. His long-term relationship with Brad Underwood — both are Kansas State grads — meant he kept a close eye on the Illini as they surged to being counted among the nation’s best teams and bowed out unexpectedly in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“His team this year was really good, but that’s the nature of tournament play,” Kruger said. “If your guys aren’t quite on or the other team is really clicking, it just takes one game. … Brad does a great job. His guys are going to play hard and compete like crazy. Certainly this year they were obviously one of the best teams in the country.”