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 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.
Kruger was a stud at K-State during a pretty good era for the Big 8. Kansas was of course Kansas, but Missouri was also really good, and of course the Wildcats were flourishing. From 1956-77, Kansas State won 12 regular-season conference titles. Kruger was part of the last freshman class, in 1970, that didn’t have eligibility to play on varsity. His four-man class, which included Beard, Larry Williams and Gene McVey, became known locally as the ‘Fab Four.’
“I don’t have to throw aside humility to say [my game] doesn’t resemble Buddy at all,” Kruger said. “No, there’s not many comparisons in our game. The comparison was that I had really good teammates also. Unlike in Buddy’s case, we won a couple championships and had to give it to someone on a championship team. I think that’s why it went our way.”
They’re both so competitive, though. Chipman remembers Kruger having the confidence and competitive rage of a rhinoceros. Don’t let nice Lonny try and fool you; — ’cause he’ll beat you every time.
“He’s this little guy from Silver Lake, Kansas,” Chipman said. “He gets in there in the preseason and no one took him serious. We work out and he’d ditch at the end. Well, we didn’t find this out until later, but he’d leave to go run for five miles after the workout. As soon as the season started, that first practice, I saw it. I had to guard him. Most competitive player, by far, I’ve ever been around. Not only just physically and tough-wise, but mentally. He’d beat you in every area.”
Kruger’s athletic gifts have become overlooked over the years, as he’s built up a college career with nearly 600 wins and a stop in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks. But before all that, he was a standout high school quarterback. He’s still a scratch golfer. He’d take money from all his college teammates in the card games.
“I never played because I was no good,” former teammate Ernie Kusnyer said. “But those guys would come out of there all mad because Lonny won.”
“That’s what so frustrating about Lonny,” Chipman said. “I couldn’t beat him at anything. I still can’t. Golf, pingpong, bowling. I couldn’t beat him in anything. Step off the court, he’d have us over, be your best friend in the world. But practice? Game time? Look out. I swear, smoke was coming out of his nose.”
Kruger’s competitive fire and ambition on the floor only once had to be pulled from a game. It came during his sophomore year. Hartman told him, “You you have got to stop chasing cars like a dog,” Beard said.
Beard and Kruger were roommates. There weren’t many stories to dish on Kruger’s younger days, because he was always the reliable guy. Still is.
“He’s pretty disciplined, and didn’t make a lot of mistakes like some of us did,” Beard said.
When the team started conditioning every preseason, he was already in shape, having stayed lean throughout the summer. He would win wind sprints. He ran a mile faster than anyone on the team. The Wildcats won two regular-season titles and went to two Elite Eights in Kruger’s time. He was the first player in program history to win Player of the Year — and did it twice. A combo point guard, Kruger averaged 17.6 points — without a 3-point line — in his senior year. He was drafted in two sports, by the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA and the St. Louis Cardinals in MLB.
“He knows everybody’s birthdays, anniversaries,” Kusnyer, who also played in Israel with Kruger in the ’70s, said. “He has no hidden agendas.”
Kruger’s remained very loyal to his friends. The team still has reunions from that era, going on 40-plus years now. This isn’t a national championship-winning team. It never even reached a Final Four. But it did then what hadn’t been accomplished to that point with K-State. It’s what Kruger’s trying to do now with Hield: win Oklahoma’s first national title.
“That’s Lonny,” Chipman said. “He’s the master of keeping everyone together.”
The master of a lot of things. That Lon, still a slick one.