Two years ago, the Oklahoma men's basketball program was in tatters. Head coach Jeff Capel had just been fired only two years removed from a trip to the Elite Eight and the NCAA had just blasted the program once again for recruiting violations committed by Capel's assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro.
A once proud program, reduced to not much more than a heap of rubble.
When OU athletic director Joe Castiglione hired Lon Kruger in the spring of 2011, everyone knew exactly what they were getting. Kruger wasn't the flashy hire that some Oklahoma fans wanted, but his track record spoke for itself: over 400 wins, took four teams to the NCAA tournament, all of which were in as bad if not worse shape as the Sooners were when he arrived.
At Kansas State, Kruger became the only KSU coach to take squads to NCAA Tournament in four consecutive seasons, following the great Jack Hartman, his coach while he was in school. At Florida, Kruger went 11-17 in his first season but had the Gators in the Final Four three years later. A stint at Illinois saw three NCAA tournament berths in four years, including his last season which came after a 14-18 third year. Finally at UNLV, Kruger took over a program that had played in two NCAA tournament games since their back-to-back Final Fours in 1990-91. In three years, the Rebels were back in the tournament and made four total trips under Kruger.
It's unclear where Kruger fell on the wish list of Castiglione--Marquette's Buzz Williams and Memphis' Josh Pastner seemed to be the top desires of the fans, while Butler's Brad Stevens took on the role of Mr. Unattainable--but now, two years later, it's crystal clear that Kruger was the perfect man for the job.
Two years after being mired in the muck somewhere between mediocrity and just plain awful, the Sooners are standing on the precipice of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, making Kruger the first coach in NCAA history to take five different schools to the Big Dance.
Is Kruger the greatest program builder of all-time? Probably not—he didn't stay at any of the five schools for a very long time, and has only won a single conference championship—but greatest program rejuvenator? He would certainly be in the conversation. Any time you're the only person to do something in history, it's a pretty special thing, unless, of course, you're the Detroit Lions, who are the only team in NFL history to go 0-16. That's nothing to be proud of.
What Kruger has done in just two years' time in Norman is nothing short of remarkable. He convinced a group of veterans from the Capel era to buy into his system, and then began bringing in talented players to work with that veteran core. He brought in Amath M'Baye and Sam Grooms as transfers and added Je'lon Hornbeak, Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins as freshmen this season. He also convinced Ryan Spangler, a Blanchard native, to return home when he was looking to transfer from Gonzaga.
The amazing part is those who know Kruger and are familiar with his coaching history aren't surprised at all by what he has done. This is what Kruger does. He's not the greatest coach of all time, but when he comes in, you can be pretty confident that your team is going to be better than it was when he arrived on campus.
That's been the case with Oklahoma. The Sooners aren't loaded with superstar talent, but they do have a coach who knows how to put people in the best possible position to be successful. As Lon Kruger has proven over the years, that's the most important thing to have.