Kruger wants noisy Oklahoma student section

By Jeff Latzke

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 28 2011 6:25 p.m. MDT

Lon Kruger, head basketball coach at the University of Oklahoma, talks with students in Norman, Okla., Thursday, April 28, 2011. Kruger wants to get Oklahoma's fan base back engaged after the program's first back-to-back losing seasons in four decades. The first step is reaching out to students face-to-face to see what the Sooners can do to get them to come to games again.

Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

NORMAN, Okla. — Lon Kruger is putting on his own sort of rush week.

Instead of trying to earn his way into a fraternity, he's trying to get members — and sorority sisters, too — back in the Lloyd Noble Center, making what's often a half-empty arena into a noisy home court that gives Oklahoma an advantage.

So, when the newly hired coach hasn't been tracking down recruits, hiring assistants or getting to know his new team, Kruger has been out asking students how to get them interested.

Half-price tickets? Why not?

Shuttles to the games? We'll check it out.

Moving the student section closer to the court? Maybe it can be done.

"We can do anything," Kruger told a group of fraternity and sorority leaders Thursday at a luncheon. "When you're new and you haven't lost a game yet, you have a little more freedom."

Kruger was brought to Oklahoma after seven seasons at UNLV in hopes that he could revive a program that suffered its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1967, sucking the energy out of a fan base that had so recently been pumped up about No. 1 NBA draft pick Blake Griffin and a run to the NCAA tournament's regional finals.

This season, the Lloyd Noble Center rarely approached full, except when tickets were given out for free or when national powerhouse Kansas flooded the arena with its own fans.

"First and foremost, we really have a goal to get students in the Lloyd Noble Center," said Kruger, who was hired April 1.

"We've got to get students. Anywhere we've been around the country where there's a great atmosphere in the building, the cornerstones are always the students," Kruger said. "We've heard over and over since we've been here, just the student attendance, the student interest hasn't been what we need it to be. So we set out with that being our No. 1 priority, our No. 1 target is to get students in the building."

Kruger has been visiting student groups, fraternities and sororities, and even ate lunch in the cafeteria at a dormitory one day while trying to find out what the Sooners can do to get the student section filled up again.

He encouraged students to bring groups to practices, which will be open to the public in mid-October. Kruger hopes getting to know the players better will create more of a connection with the fan base than simply showing up for a few hours on game days with no interaction.

The luncheon he hosted Thursday also brought suggestions to bring back a "Midnight Madness" style event when practice opens in October, to hold some sort of preseason pep rally and to provide opportunities for students to mingle with players at practices or at special events.

Last season, students who attended at least 15 of 16 home games could get a refund for all but a processing fee on their season tickets, dropping the price to less than $1 per game.

So, it's not as simple as just handing out freebies.

"The tangible things need to be a bonus," Kruger said. "The connection is more important, the feeling of really wanting to be there to support these guys and support our team and to help us as a group win games."

With finals approaching in a couple weeks, Kruger doesn't have much time left to reach out to students before many of them head home for the summer. So, he started his blitz across campus even while still putting together his first recruiting class for the Sooners.

He signed a third player — California junior college center Casey Arent — on Thursday while also letting Robert Goff, predecessor Jeff Capel's only signee, out of his letter of intent and announcing that forward Nick Thompson would transfer.

Kruger also has plans to get former players more involved in the program, and said he'd likely plan a 10-year reunion for the Sooners' last Final Four team from 2002.

"The sooner we get started, the higher we can set that baseline as the starting point," Kruger said. "It's not a case of wanting to kind of go through the year and see where we're at.

"Let's attack it right now, and let's get after it."

There's evidence of what a home-field advantage can mean at Oklahoma. Bob Stoops' football team has the longest home winning streak in the nation, at 36 games in a row, on Owen Field.

"We want it to be a case when you leave the University of Oklahoma, you've got great memories of your time in the Lloyd Noble Center," Kruger said. "Certainly you do in the football stadium right now, and that's great. They've earned that, they do a terrific job and we want to do something like that in terms of providing memories for a lifetime."

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