HOUSTON — Joe Castiglione was walking down the corridors of NRG Stadium on Thursday when it hit him.
Five years ago to the day — on Thursday before the Final Four inside this very arena — he hired Lon Kruger to coach the Oklahoma Sooners.
It wasn’t that easy, of course. Kruger had previously turned him down.
Good thing Joe C. was so persistent.
In those five years, the 63-year-old Kruger has renovated the OU basketball program completely, from a cracked foundation to a shaky frame to a leaky roof to an unattractive front porch, Sooner hoops is prime real estate once again. Kruger has returned the Sooners to the Final Four for the first time since 2002 and has elevated Oklahoma basketball back into the national conversation.
On Saturday night, OU meets Villanova in a national semifinal. On Monday, the winner gets North Carolina or Syracuse.
When OU takes the court, things will be frenetic. Can the Sooners hit from outside? Can they defend Villanova? Can they rebound with the Wildcats? Is Buddy Hield due for a crash, or will he carry Oklahoma to new heights?
At the center of the Final Four tempest will stand Kruger, defiantly holding his composure, like he always does, only this time it will be in the face of a thousand tense moments.
Just like he did when he hired Bob Stoops way back in December 1998, Castiglione found in Kruger the perfect man for the job.
“I just really felt like he was the right person at the right time for us,” Castiglione said.
The Kruger Effect has three main components, and all three were vital to getting OU back to glory:
- He’s going to elevate the program. Four of the six programs he’s taken over had a losing record or close his first season there and three of those ended up making a deep NCAA Tournament run before he left. That includes two Final Four trips.
- He’s going to consistently win games. His teams at Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois compiled a win-loss record of 590-360 because he’s a talented recruiter and a hell of a coach.
- He’s going to fix your NCAA compliance problems. He took over programs that had run afoul of the NCAA law at Florida, Illinois and UNLV and now OU, and brought them out of the dark.
Winning is all good fun, of course, but to Castiglione, Kruger’s reputation as an NCAA “cleaner” — like the anonymous mob lieutenant who suddenly shows up and silently makes all the capo’s problems just disappear — was imperative. Castiglione doesn’t put up with NCAA shenanigans. Image might not be everything, but it’s up there.
“Yeah,” Castiglione said, “we had our matter going on at that time.”
That would be the matter of a $3,000 loan to ex-Sooner Keith “Tiny” Gallon’s mother from a Florida financial advisor. Castiglione recalled that “circumstantial evidence” — namely, phone calls and text messages between the financial advisor and Jeff Capel assistant Oronde Taliaferro at about the same time the loan was obtained — indicated just enough wrongdoing on the heels of Kelvin Sampson’s own impermissible and excessive phone escapades to land OU back on NCAA probation.
“You remember it came out as a story on TMZ,” Castiglione said. “We were at the Big 12 Tournament when the story broke. What in the world?”
Also under Capel, the winning part had deteriorated quickly and significantly, from a 30-6 record with national player of the year Blake Griffin in 2008-09, to 13-18 in 2009-10 to 14-18 and NCAA probation in 2010-11 (and the vacating of all 13 victories in 2009-10).
Enter Kruger. Problem solved.
“Yeah, it’s kind of been the same for him everywhere he’s been,” said Steve Henson, who worked with Kruger as a player or assistant coach for 25 years before taking the UTSA job next week. “When he went to Florida they were on probation, Illinois was on probation, UNLV was on probation. All those were good programs with good tradition that had just fallen off a little bit in terms of wins and losses and with some probation issues. So he went in with the same plan everywhere he’s been: recruit the right guys, develop ‘em, coach ‘em. And always keeps the big picture in mind.”
Castiglione tried to hire Kruger when Sampson left for Indiana after the 2005-06 season, but Kruger had only gotten to UNLV the year before. And, Kruger was coaching his son, Kevin.
Five years later, with Capel gone, the OU job was open again.
“We didn’t forget about coach Kruger when the opportunity presented itself again,” Castiglione said.
So Joe C. called Kruger, who had just finished his seventh season — the single longest stop in his nomadic, 33-year coaching career, and who, with his wife Barb, had just built the couple’s dream home.
No thanks, the coach said.
“So I called him back,” the athletic director said. “I don’t remember if it was the next day, but I called him back within 24-36 hours and I said ‘Lon, I know I called you out of the blue before … but maybe you’ve had some second thoughts. Have you had any second thoughts?’ ”
A phone call wasn’t enough for Castiglione.
“I said, ‘Would you allow me to come out and visit with you face to face? The phone is one thing, but let’s talk face to face,’ ” Castiglione said. “I said, ‘I think we have a really special opportunity and you’re in a special place with all you’ve accomplished and the character you are and the way you build programs, we think there’s a great fit for both. So can I come out and present my thoughts to you?’
“He said OK.”
The Krugers had been in their new home for only a couple of months and still hadn’t completely unpacked when Castiglione walked in.
“I didn’t realize he had just moved in,” Castiglione said. “That was one of the first signs that maybe this was going to be more difficult than I thought.”
Castiglione said “the conversation went really well,” and told Kruger as he boarded the plane at McCarren International, “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
But when they did, Kruger again told Joe C. thanks but no thanks.
“I said, ‘You know what? You’re messing with a persistent guy,’ ” Castiglione said. “I said, ‘Let’s talk some more.’ And we finally were able to get to a point where he was really, really excited and started to think about an opportunity.
“I just kept thinking, ‘This third time could be the charm.’ ”
Five years after Kelvin Sampson, five years after Jeff Capel, it’s the once-reluctant Lon Kruger who has become the Sooners’ charm.
“Well, I wasn’t reluctant about Oklahoma at all,” Kruger said. “Barb and I loved living in Las Vegas, we love the people in Las Vegas. Very ingrained in the community. Barb was terrific with a lot of different charitable organizations. We just kind of went there with the idea that that would be our last stop. We really didn’t think about anything else.
“But Joe was persistent. We’re obviously pleased. We miss the folks in Las Vegas, but we’re very, very happy with what’s happening in Norman, love the people in Norman.
“Look forward to finishing up there.”