Florida basketball: catching up with former Gators basketball coach Lon Kruger in Gainesville
Lon Kruger’s Hall of Fame coaching career took him to 10 different cities in 45 years and included stints in the Big 12, SEC, Big Ten and NBA.
But Kruger’s memories of his time in Gainesville rank among his fondest. He coached at Florida from 1990-96, leading the Gators to their first Final Four appearance in school history.
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Kruger received a standing ovation at the O’Connell Center last week when he was recognized for being inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame last November. He won 694 games in his NCAA career with two Final Four appearances – leading Florida to the 1994 Final Four and Buddy Hield-led Oklahoma to a Final Four more than 20 years later in 2015.
“When any coach receives an award like that, it means we had a lot of good players, have been surrounded by a lot of good staff,” Kruger said. “Definitely the case in my situation. But just really good memories, memories shared by a lot of people and very honored to be a part of that group.”
Kruger, who turned 70 last August, is enjoying retirement in Las Vegas while following his son, Kevin, who is in his second season as UNLV’s head coach. Kruger himself coached at UNLV from 2004-11, leading the Running Rebels to four NCAA Tournament trips before taking over as head coach at Oklahoma.
“We’re huge fans of the program,” Kruger said. “We will go by practice on occasion but enjoying his two daughters, two grand kids there every day, so that’s definitely helped the transition into retirement to have those things happening.”
Finding a way at UF
Kevin Kruger was in second grade when Lon took over the Florida program in 1990 from interim coach Don DeVoe after the program was crippled by NCAA sanctions incurred in 1989 during Norm Sloan’s final year as head coach.
“The NCAA was involved, the FBI was involved,” Kruger said. “It was kind of a crazy time.”
Craig Brown was Kruger’s first big recruit at Florida. After back to back NIT seasons in 1992 and 1993, a team that included Brown, athletic forward Andrew DeClerq, point guard Dan Cross, wing Brian Thompson and portly center Dametri Hill broke through to reach the NCAA Tournament in 1994 as a 3 seed.
Florida’s NCAA Tournament run included a few nail-biters. The Gators edged James Madison 64-62, then beat Penn 70-58 before a showdown with second-seed UConn in the Sweet 16 at Miami Arena.
“The neatest part of that Final Four run was the Sweet 16, Elite Eight was in Miami,” Kruger said. “So it was back in the state where Gator fans could kind of experience it and jump on board and enjoy it. I think that was really impactful for the program to have those people, have all the fans, enjoy and share in the ride.”
UConn could have won the game in regulation, but star forward Donyell Marshall missed two free throws with 3.4 seconds left, sending the game to overtime. Florida won the game in OT 69-60, befitting of a team whose slogan was "Find a Way."
“You need a bounce or two to go your way, and that’s what makes the tournament so great,” Kruger said. “There are surprise finishes, surprise winners, again, it looked like UConn was going to advance and then all of the sudden we’re able to advance.”
Florida then beat Boston College, 74-68, to reach the Final Four. The run came to an end in Charlotte when Florida lost 70-65 to Grant Hill-led Duke.
Kruger said what he takes from the team most are the relationships. Brown has gone on to a coaching career and was on the O’Connell Center floor a little more than a month ago as an assistant coach with Florida A&M. Backup center Svein Dyrkolbotn was instrumental in the development at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville, and Kruger attended a dedication with Dyrkolbotn for an indoor track at the newly-built Alachua County Sports Complex.
“The most interesting part from the coaching standpoint is you have young people, 18 to 22 years old, that are really kind of finishing out the foundation years of their life of which to live the rest of their lives,” Kruger said. “To see those people go on and enjoy families and success in the workplace, that’s really what it’s all about.”
High on Todd Golden
Kruger left Florida in 1996 to take over at Illinois, then tried his hand in the NBA, spending three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks (2000-03). After a one-year stint as an assistant with the New York Knicks, Kruger returned to the college game with UNLV in 1994.
Living out West, Kruger said he watched Todd Golden team’s at San Francisco and is exited about the direction of the program under Florida’s first-year head coach. Kruger has a strong connection with one of the coaches on Golden’s staff, as Colin Hartman coached under him at Oklahoma for five seasons.
“I’ve watched Todd’s teams over the last few years, they’re great,” Kruger said. “They’re extremely well prepared, they work extremely hard, will do a great job. It takes time especially with the transfer portal, NIL. It’s an interesting time for sure but he’ll do a fantastic job.”
Along with spending time with his kids and grandkids, Kruger has remained heavily involved with Coaches vs. Cancer, an initiative backed by the National Association of Basketball Coaches to raise funds and awareness to fight the disease.
“This will be our 16th year hosting an annual golf event that raises a lot of money in the fight against cancer," Kruger said. "The road to recovery volunteer drivers for cancer patients, involved in that a lot so a lot of things going on in Vegas that keeps us busy.”