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March 20, 2013
In his practice uniform of sneakers, windbreaker pants and white polo shirt, he watched his team scrimmage at the southern end of the men's practice gym inside Lloyd Noble Center for what is surely this program's biggest game of the last four years.
The Sooners missed the last four NCAA tournaments until earning selection this past Sunday.
Friday they will travel to Philadelphia as the No. 10 seed in the South Regional against No. 7 seed San Diego State at 8:20 p.m. in Wells Fargo Center.
SCOOPHD: LON KRUGER TALKS RELATIONSHIP WITH SDSU'S STEVE FISHER
Kruger stood at half court watching intently as his players ran through their sets at full speed. After each possession, he walked toward his players and genuinely, earnestly -- but not violently -- corrected them.
There's no profanity from the coaches at Kruger's practices, no belittling of teammates and seldom do you hear yelling. Practices have been open all season, and Kruger has seen no reason to shut out the public or reporters now.
The only head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead five programs to the NCAA tournament is in the midst of doing what he does best: changing a culture of losing into a culture of winning.
For his first act, Kruger took a Texas Pan-American team with a 5-20 record before his arrival and created a 20-8 team in four years. He then inherited Kansas State, a team which hadn't played in the NCAAs in four years and proceeded to coach the program to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
At Florida, he guided a team that won all of seven games the year before his arrival and coached it to the Final Four. Craig Brown, Central Florida's director of operations for men's basketball, played for Kruger at Florida and was captain of that Final Four squad. He attributes Kruger's success to instilling discipline and drive into his players.
"I think he's a great competitor and he has a great feel for the game of basketball and what it takes to be successful," Brown said.
Kruger overcame NCAA sanctions at Illinois to lead the Fighting Illini to three NCAA second-round showings in four years. At UNLV he doubled the amount of tournament appearances the Runnin' Rebels made in the 13 years before his arrival.
Former UNLV swingman Curtis Terry was with Kruger for four years and isn't surprised to hear Oklahoma has already returned to the NCAA tournament in year two of Kruger's tenure.
"With Coach Kruger, what you see is what you get," Terry said. "He puts his cards on the table. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He's not trying to be phony or come off as someone he's not."
As one of the most successful catalysts for change in coaching, he recognizes a change agent when he sees one. It's one of many reasons he respects San Diego State men's basketball coach Steve Fisher.
"He's done such a good job at San Diego State," Kruger said. "People kind of forget that when he went there, there was no interest. The job that he's done in the 11 or 12 years that he's been there is just phenomenal."
Fisher and Kruger are friendly. They've texted congratulations after big wins this season and keep up with phone calls when time allows. Fran Fraschilla is a friend to both.
'CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH'
Fraschilla's job is much different from years ago. These days he is a popular college basketball analyst for ESPN, primarily covering the Big 12 Conference, but before his days of television and tweets, he was, quite simply, a coach.
He led three programs to a National Invitational Tournament or NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years as head coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico.
Fraschilla has known Fisher for nearly 30 years dating back to their days as assistants in the Mid-American Conference. Back then Fraschilla coached at Ohio University, and Fisher coached at Western Michigan. Nothing surprises Fraschilla about the success Fisher and Kruger have maintained over the years.
"Both guys are cut from the same cloth," he said. "They're both old-fashioned coaches that believe in the fundamental principles of the game. Their teams are usually sound defensively, and they usually don't beat themselves."
That's been the basis of Kruger's and Fisher's success throughout the last two decades, but when lighting has struck, they've been able to catch it in a bottle.
Kruger first caught it at Kansas State when Mitch Richmond took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 1988. Richmond became one of the most celebrated basketball players of his era and an Olympian, winning gold in 1996.
After the controversial firing of Bill Frieder before the 1989 NCAA tournament, Fisher first caught it when he and Glen Rice won the national title at Michigan. That was Fisher's first job as a head coach, and six-game run to the title allowed him to keep the job.
He caught it again in 1991 when he convinced five of the best high school basketball players in country at the time -- Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King -- to sign with Michigan. They would become the Fab Five, and eventually change the face of college basketball.
Supremely talented college basketball players might come to gifted coaches once in a lifetime. Kruger and Fisher are basketball coaches who aren't defined by their blue chip hauls.
Fisher took an opportunity last century to show the basketball world he could do more than just recruit. He could build programs, too.
"A lot of younger people won't remember he coached the Fab Five, but if you follow college basketball over the last decade, he's become synonymous with San Diego State and winning," Fraschilla said.
'MORE THAN WINS AND LOSSES'
Fisher began rebuilding a terrible Aztec basketball program when he accepted the head coaching position in 1999 after just one season as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. San Diego State endured losing seasons in 13 of the 14 seasons prior to his arrival.
The year Fisher's Michigan team won the national title San Diego State finished the season 12-17 and was ousted in the first round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
But Fisher's first season was his worst. His 1999-00 team didn't win a game in conference play and finished with a 5-23 record.
However, with each season, the Aztecs improved. They've won at least 20 games in each of the last eight years, and, in 2011, were a top 10 program finishing the season 34-3 and earning a Sweet 16 showing.
He built his SDSU teams not on a terrific roster of talent like John Calipari's Kentucky or Memphis teams, but on basketball savvy and loyalty.
"Who Coach Fisher really is is a blue collar, keep it simple, play great D, don't beat yourself kind of coach," Fraschilla said. "That's where he and Coach Kruger are very similar."
Fisher and Kruger are adept at maximizing the talent they have at their disposal and putting their players in positions to not just be effective but excel. They aren't as focused on signing top 10 recruits as much as signing players who fit their basketball philosophy and value a system.
Perhaps that's to their detriment. Or perhaps five-star recruits should be coming to them.
Fraschilla said there's no question Kruger and Fisher are capable of coaching the best players in the country if given the opportunity, but they're also capable of coaching gym rats, hustle players, men with something to prove.
"If I were a great player, and I wanted to reach my maximum potential, I could do so playing for either coach," Fraschilla said. "That's obvious. At Oklahoma, it's only a matter of time before kids see that Lon's program is built on making sure guys improve, and I think you can say the same thing for Coach Fisher over the last decade."
Kruger is doing his best to create the same atmosphere Fisher has in San Diego. He wants to win, sure. What coach doesn't? But he also wants to create an environment and a program fans can be proud of and his players will remember fondly.
He invites former players back to participate in team functions and watch games, talks with fans openly and honestly and is genuinely invested in his players' and staff's lives. In his first season at Oklahoma, he handed out donuts on the south oval of Norman's campus the same day student season tickets went on sale.
"It's about other people enjoying the success of the program," Kruger said. "It's not just about wins and losses."