NORMAL — Lon Kruger looks calm and cool on the sidelines. It’s been that way at every stop in his coaching career, including a successful four-year stint at Illinois from 1996-2000.
Those who know him best, though, are not fooled. They know the fire that burns inside Kruger.
“He’s very competitive, so is every coach, but he has great skill with people and tremendous knowledge of the game and feel for the game,” said Illinois State basketball coach Tim Jankovich. “He’s a great leader and someone I would have enjoyed playing for.”
Kruger was an assistant coach at Kansas State when Jankovich was the Wildcats’ point guard in the early 1980s. In 1983, Kruger became Texas Pan-American’s head coach and gave Jankovich his first coaching gig as a graduate assistant.
On Wednesday night, Jankovich and Kruger will put aside their friendship for a couple hours at Redbird Arena. Kruger will bring 24th-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas (6-0) to meet ISU (5-1) at 7:05 p.m. as part of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge.
Kruger and his wife, Barb, expect to see many friends from Champaign-Urbana in the crowd.
“I have a lot of great memories (from Illinois),” said Kruger. “The people there have such a passion for tradition and basketball and were knowledgeable and good folks. We had a great time there. It was very similar to our roots at Kansas State.”
The 58-year-old Kruger has resurrected the once-proud UNLV program, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did that in his four previous college stops, including Illinois.
The Illini had drifted to the middle of the Big Ten Conference when Kruger left Florida, where he took the Gators to the 1994 Final Four, to replace the retiring Lou Henson. One of his first moves was to hire Rob Judson as an assistant coach.
Judson, now on Jankovich’s ISU staff, has kept a map of the first recruiting trip to Chicago that he and Kruger embarked upon. Judson, a former Illini player, was on Jim Molinari’s staff at Bradley. Molinari and Kruger played together at Kansas State for two years in the 1970s, and Molinari recommended Judson to Kruger.
Many, especially in Chicago, were upset that Henson’s assistant, Jimmy Collins, didn’t get the Illini job. Judson said they weren’t mad at Kruger, but the Illini administration. But Kruger, with Judson’s help, turned things around by signing Peoria Manual’s talented trio of Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams and later Brian Cook of Lincoln.
Illinois surprised everyone in 1998. The Illini were picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten Conference, but shared the title with Michigan State. It was Illinois’ first Big Ten crown in 14 years.
“Lon is a tremendous coach during games and tremendous with adjustments and recognizing how teams are playing certain actions,” said Judson. “He’s really well prepared. I see a lot of Bill Self and Lon Kruger in Tim Jankovich.”
Self succeeded Kruger as Illinois coach before leaving for Kansas in 2003. Jankovich joined the Illini staff in the 2002-03 season and moved on with Self.
NBA experience ‘humbling’
The only blemish on Kruger’s record came when he left Illinois to become head coach of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. He was fired 2½ years later, but doesn’t regret the move.
“It was a great experience. Losing was the only bad thing,” he said. “Other than that I enjoyed the players, the challenge of each day. It’s all about basketball ... we went down there and couldn’t get it done. Getting fired was humbling in a positive way.”
Kruger was named UNLV’s coach in April 2004. The Rebels had not done much since Jerry Tarkanian, who led UNLV to the 1990 national title, was forced out in 1992.
In the last four seasons, Kruger has led the Rebels to three NCAA Tournament appearances and at least 25 wins in three of those years. UNLV is a hot ticket again in Vegas.
About the only hiccup came when Kruger underwent sextuple bypass heart surgery in 2007.
“I was shocked it happened so early. Genetically heart disease runs in my family. My dad and three uncles had surgery,” said Kruger. “I knew it would happen at some point, but not at 55. I had no symptoms leading up to it and no problems afterward. I was lucky we caught it when we did.”
Kruger was back in his office less than a week later and is still going strong.
“With any incident like that you have appreciation for all our blessings and opportunities and friendships,” he said.
Tickets available: Tickets remain for Wednesday’s game and can be purchased at the ISU Athletics Ticket Office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday or online at goredbirds.com.