As a player, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger was the Buddy Hield of his day

HOUSTON — Lon Kruger could make the women go wild. Yes, that’s right. Humble, unpresuming Lon Kruger. The 63-year-old man trying to coach Oklahoma to its first national title, the one with the Elmer Fudd-like intonation. Reluctant heartbreaker, it’s true.

Scene: It’s Manhattan, Kansas, the early 1970s. Kruger is an incredible two-sport athlete for Kansas State, starring in basketball but also a really good pitcher for the Wildcats. His nickname is “Slick” and he’s rocking bell-bottom pants while riding around in teammate Danny Beard’s Chevy Biscayne.

“He could’ve had any girl on campus,” former teammate Bob Chipman said. “But he was pretty shy. He was the matinee idol. Everyone loved him. But honestly, he didn’t bait. He was so, so organized. A great student. I tried to drag him down to — I’m one of those guys who likes to go out once in a while — I’d kind of throw him out there, maybe I can get him to talk to some of these girls.”

His K-State basketball teammates were the wild ones, though. Those guys could only rarely get Kruger to The Dark Horse, a bar on campus where they would sneak in during the afternoons or whenever their coach, Jack Hartman, was out of town. They’d play pinball there, or sometimes the team would go over to Mel’s and drinks schooners of beer with Kruger’s other teammates, the baseball players.

Kruger’s nickname: “Slick.” (Courtesy Kansas State University)

Kruger came from a strong family. His parents lived about 45 minutes from Manhattan, and so they would have teammates over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They would eat local cow, three-inch-thick steaks, inside the home Don Kruger literally built. Lon was the son of a mailman who also sold used cars.

Kruger was a basketball star in a different era, but his humility has never changed. When asked about that “Slick” nickname on Friday, he balked at first, though he also flashed as big a smile as I’ve seen this week at the Final Four. He might’ve even blushed.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Kruger said of the moniker.

With his five Sooners starters sitting to his left at the dais, they all began cracking up at the revelation of their coach’s old nickname. Isaiah Cousins buried his face in his practice jersey, while Buddy Hield chirped, “He knows. Tell us.”

It was that ’70s hair, man. But it was also Kruger’s style on the floor, who he was a college guy, all of it. Beard gave him the nickname because Kruger used to take Butch Wax and slick his hair in the front. Kruger, of course, didn’t completely reveal this detail on Friday, though.

“I’d like to say it started because I was pretty smooth, you know, yet it was probably more about the haircut,” Kruger said. “I started growing up, I was one of six children, five boys. We didn’t want to spend that money on a barber. Dad bought himself a pair of clippers. The only thing he could kind of do was give us a burr cut. I think that’s probably what it started with, kind of the haircut, that burr look back in that day.”

Kruger and his superstar, Hield, the best player he has ever coached in college, have created a cool, rare combo: They’ve both been Player of the Year in the Big 12/Big 8 — twice. In back-to-back years. A two-time conference Player of the Year has never coached a two-time conference Player of the Year at the major conference level, and as far as what I researched, has never happened before in Division I.

“I am aware of how good Kruger was,” Hield told me on Friday. “But he never talks about himself. He’s always the humble guy, the same way as me. He is always in practice, [telling] us stuff. He would go at us and we wouldn’t be able to stay in front of him. I always tell coach I’d give him problems because he wouldn’t be able to guard me either. It’s kind of a cool deal. He was back-to-back player of the year, I’m back-to-back player of the year. It’s just something similar we share and I’m glad to call him my coach.”

Who wouldn’t want to see a game of H-O-R-S-E between these two now?

Want to see Kruger ball out? Have at it.