It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini are putting together a nice run to end the season, but the fan base is growing impatient with Groce’s failure to produce wins over the last five years. Many are calling for AD Josh Whitman to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach. Despite their recent struggles, Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason, given nothing shocking happens at a place like Indiana.
So who are some candidates to replace the head honcho in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger.
Kruger was born and raised in Kansas and played point guard for Kansas State as well as shortstop for their baseball team. He was named the Big Eight Sophomore of the Year in 1972 and Big Eight Player of the Year in 1973 and ‘74. After graduating from KSU, Kruger immediately took a position as an assistant for the Wildcats the following season. He remained on the K-State staff until 1982, when he accepted the head coaching job at Texas-Pan American.
He returned to Kansas State from 1986 to 1990 to be their head coach, where he led the team to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight run in 1988. Kruger then made another coaching move, accepting the head job at Florida. In his six seasons with the Gators, he took them to four postseason appearances including an amazing Final Four run in 1994. He was named SEC Coach of the Year in both 1992 and ‘94. But Kruger could the itch to switch programs once again, accepting the head coaching job at Illinois in 1997.
As many Illini fans know, Kruger led the orange and blue to three NCAA tournament appearances in four years, including a Big Ten regular season title in 1997-98. Kruger then became one of five head coaches in the country to take four different programs to the Big Dance. After four seasons in Champaign, Kruger made the jump to the NBA and became head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. That experiment didn’t go very well, however. In three years he finished with a 69-122 overall record in Atlanta before returning to the college coaching game at UNLV. He led the Runnin’ Rebels to a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2007 and followed that up with four more consecutive tournament berths. He won two MVC conference tournaments while in Las Vegas as well.
In 2011 Kruger made another program switch, accepting the head coaching gig at Oklahoma and returning to his Big 12 roots for the first time since coaching and playing at Kansas State. He led the Sooners to a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014 and then a Final Four run in 2016, making it the third time he’s taken a program to a Final Four. Despite last year’s success, Kruger’s Sooners are struggling this season, currently sitting in last place in the Big 12.
Kruger’s Illinois ties are about as direct and obvious as they could possibly be. Kruger coached the Illini for four seasons from 1997 to 2000, leading them to three postseason berths in that span. While his time in Champaign wasn’t long, he brought a lot of success to Illinois and recruited and coached players such as Frank Williams, Brian Cook and Sergio McClain. There’s no doubt Kruger enjoyed and respected his time with the Illini. The only question is whether or not he’d be interested in returning to a place he’s already coached at.
1. Has had success in Champaign
Kruger doesn’t need any convincing that the Illini and their fan base can be special if they have a talented team. He’s done it before. It’s fair to assume that when Whitman makes calls to various coaches around the country, he has to inform them and convince them of Illinois’ rich basketball history and passionate fan base. However, with Kruger there’s no need to do this. He’s already experienced tremendous success in Champaign. What better way to talk Kruger into returning than simply allowing him to rekindle his memories from the late 90’s? Kruger has already proven that he can win with the orange and blue, so there’s very few question marks as far as his ability to coach.
2. Time for a switch?
Kruger likes to move around. After four years at Kansas State he went to Florida. Six years with the Gators and he moved to Champaign. Four years later and he’s in the NBA. Then he’s on to UNLV for seven years before moving to Oklahoma, where he’s been for the past six seasons. Is it time for him to make another move? He’s never stayed at a program longer than seven years, and he’s hitting that magic number with the Sooners right now. Even though Kruger is loved in Norman, his roots never seem to be planted too deeply, which means he might pick up the phone if Josh Whitman came calling.
3. Program builder
The list of teams Kruger has rebuilt and brought success to is long and impressive. Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma all struggled prior to Kruger’s arrival. He managed to turn around five different teams and became one of the only head coaches in NCAA history to lead five universities to an NCAA tournament victory. There’s no doubt he’s a program builder and has proven time and time again that he can quickly turn around a struggling team. Would he be willing to try and turn around Illinois for a second time in his career?
1. Returning to Illinois
This is the flip side of the first pro. He knows Illinois well because he coached here, which is a good thing for familiarities’ sake, but a bad thing if you consider his past. Yes, Kruger has made several different program jumps after rebuilding their teams, but he’s never returned to a place he’s already coached at. That’s not necessarily a negative, but the odds of him returning to Champaign seem low considering he’s never gone back to a place he’s previously been apart of. I can think of very few examples of a head coach returning to a program he’s already brought success to twenty years later. Why would he want to undergo the same rebuild twice? That’s not to say it’s impossible, but on the surface this move wouldn’t make much sense for Kruger.
Kruger makes a good amount of money (nearly 3 million a year), which means the cost of hiring him away from the Sooners would include a hefty buyout as well as a large contractual commitment. He seems very settled in Norman and the Oklahoma boosters and administration love him, so it would presumably take a lot of money to lure him back to Champaign. It’s not impossible but it would take a large financial commitment.
It’s not a huge problem, but it’s definitely a factor that might be talked about. Kruger is 64 years old and seems settled in Norman. He’s made it known that he wants to continue coaching for years to come, but would he really want to take a risk and start another rebuild at his age? Uprooting from a program that’s paying him good money and loves his presence in their town doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. But Kruger has been known to get the “itch” before, so perhaps he’ll want to make a move again. Even so he would be more of a short-term than a long-term option, which isn’t what Josh Whitman is looking for.
Jack Shields of the SBNation site Crimson and Cream Machine weighed in on the likelihood of Kruger leaving the Sooners this offseason:
Lon Kruger's job in Norman is pretty safe at this point. A Final Four appearance tends to give a coach a bit of leeway, and his struggling team is a young one with loads of potential. He's also someone who will be difficult to lure away, as he currently makes 2.85 million annually (13th nationally). It took an awful lot of money and persuasion to get him to leave for a new gig back in 2011, and I imagine it'll be difficult to convince him to uproot once again (especially at his age).
This is one of the few potential hires that would really excite me. It’s not Lovie-level, but if Whitman were to somehow pull this off he would deserve a standing ovation from me. My only qualm with this move would be Kruger’s age. It shouldn’t be a factor that would cross him off Whitman’s list, but he would be 65 going on 66 years old if he took over the Illini next season. That’s pretty old to just be starting a rebuild that might take years to accomplish. Whoever is hired should be the long-term solution for Illinois, not a four or five-year stop gap. And when you consider both his age and his willingness to bounce around to different programs, maybe Kruger isn’t the ideal candidate that some might think he is. I’d still be very pleased if he were re-hired in Champaign, though. Kruger is a proven coach who also brings fantastic personable and recruiting abilities to the table. It’s unlikely to happen, but it’d be a great move for the program.
Have thoughts on Lon Kruger’s chances of becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!