Kruger's Journey To 400 Wins Unique
Feb. 5, 2008
LAS VEGAS - While more than 100 other coaches have won 400-plus games at the collegiate level, Lon Kruger's journey to the accomplishment is unique. His UNLV Runnin' Rebels beat New Mexico on Saturday to improve to 17-4 this season, despite losing four starters and five seniors from last season's Sweet 16 team.
The win gave him 399 career victories as a head coach in the college ranks. UNLV faces Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday and plays at home against Colorado State this coming Saturday.
Kruger, 55, cemented his place in history as college basketball's greatest change agent last March when his UNLV squad advanced to the Sweet 16 in just his third season at the helm of the program.
Five times Kruger has taken over a program and five times - within at least four years each time - his programs have reigned victorious. It is arguably the most-proven track record of raising programs by one coach.
However, that career path makes getting to landmarks such as 400 wins that much more challenging. Of the 22 seasons Kruger has served as a head coach, a majority of the seasons were spent in the early stages of building programs.
A 20-win season in his fourth year at Texas-Pan American. He also served as Pan American's athletics director - the youngest AD in the nation at the time (he was 29 when he was hired) - while also serving as a first-time head coach. The team had won only four games the year prior to Kruger taking over in 1982.
An Elite Eight appearance in his second season at Kansas State and four NCAA Tournament appearances in his four seasons coaching his alma mater. The Wildcats had failed to reach the tournament in the four seasons prior to Kruger taking over the program in 1986 and were just a combined one game over .500 in the three previous seasons. His 1987-88 team still holds a tie for the school's single-season record of 25 wins. The run under Kruger also marks the only time the Kansas State program went to the NCAA Tournament four consecutive seasons.
A Final Four appearance and a then-team-record of 29 wins in his fourth season at Florida. The Gators were under investigation by the FBI and NCAA when Kruger took over the program in 1990, with the team coming off of a seven-win season. The unofficial expectations were simple at the time - keep the Gators out of trouble and out of the headlines. In addition to cleaning up the program off of the court, his teams went on to win over 100 games in the next six years with four postseason appearances, including a magical run to the Final Four in 1994.
A Big Ten title for Illinois in his second season with the Fighting Illini and three NCAA Tournament appearances in his four seasons. The Fighting Illini had not captured a Big Ten title in 12 years (and only one in 33 years) when Kruger took over in 1996. Illinois had also won just one NCAA Tournament game since it had advanced to the Final Four in 1989. In Kruger's three NCAA Tournament appearances in the four seasons, the Illini advanced to the second round each time.
A Sweet 16 appearance, a Mountain West Conference Tournament title and a 30-win season in just his third season at UNLV in 2007. The once proud Runnin' Rebels had not won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1991 (with just two appearances in 15 years) and had not been ranked nationally since 1992.
The names keeping company with Kruger tell more of the story. Only four coaches ever have led three different schools to the Sweet 16 since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams - Kruger, Rick Pitino, Bill Self and Tubby Smith.
Kruger is also just one of three coaches to lead four different schools to NCAA Tournament wins - Jim Harrick and Eddie Sutton are the others - and he is just one of five coaches to ever take four different schools to the NCAA Tournament - Lefty Driesell, Harrick, Pitino and Sutton join him.
Kruger has a lifetime record of 399-271 (.596) as a collegiate head coach. He also spent two and a half seasons as head coach with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks (2000-2002) - where he won another 69 games as a head coach - and spent time during the 2003-04 season as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.
As a player at Kansas State, Kruger won two Big Eight titles as a starting guard and was named the Big Eight Conference Player of the Year in both his junior and seniors seasons (1973 and 1974).