NORMAN, Okla. — New Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has been through a couple of rebuilding projects.
This, he says, is different.
"This program has got great tradition, so we're not rebuilding. We're not bringing it back," Kruger told a crowd of hundreds who gathered Monday at McCasland Fieldhouse to see him formally introduced as the Sooners' coach.
"We're just hoping to continue what's been very good here for a long time."
Oklahoma is only two years removed from a trip to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, but the span since then represents the school's first back-to-back losing seasons since 1967.
Kruger, 58, spent the last seven seasons rebuilding a struggling program at UNLV and before that coached at Illinois, Kansas State and Florida. He took all four of those schools to the NCAA tournament.
"The thing we do regardless is surround ourselves with as good of players as we possibility can, and good people. We've always had a staff of coaches that are very genuinely interested and motivated out of the well-being for the student-athlete, not only on the court but off and in every way," Kruger said.
"I think in doing that, the players understand that we're motivated out of an interest in helping them."
Kruger said he hadn't finalized his staff but he expected it to be a "blend" of his assistants from UNLV and newcomers.
Kruger replaces Jeff Capel, who was fired three weeks ago after five seasons as Oklahoma's coach. He took over amid the sanctions from predecessor Kelvin Sampson's major NCAA rules violations and had a quick ascent with eventual top NBA draft pick Blake Griffin, then a rapid fall once he left.
Five underclassmen left the program last offseason, including former McDonald's All-Americans Willie Warren, Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith "Tiny" Gallon. None of them were first-round NBA draft picks.
"That would kind of throw a wrench in anyone's plans. I don't know that it's been anything other than that," Kruger said. "The guys that are here, the guys that remain, are pretty young and one senior last year, so we're hoping to really be the beneficiary of their development and their maturing and getting older in the Big 12.
"It's hard to be young and be effective, so I think that all kind of hit coach Capel at one time."
Gallon's departure also followed his involvement in another NCAA investigation. He has admitted he took money from a Florida financial adviser to pay for his high-school transcripts and enroll at Oklahoma.
Kruger said he had been briefed by athletic director Joe Castiglione on the situation but didn't consider it a factor in whether to take over the Sooners.
"I never lost much sleep over anything that I don't have any control over," Kruger said. "We'll hope for a good result. I think we're deserving of a pretty good result, it appears.
"We'll take it, move on and make the best of it."
Kruger's introduction was held at the Sooners' former basketball arena, where he played for Kansas State as a visitor in the 1970s. The building now hosts volleyball and wrestling matches.
"A little bit of a cruel joke, I think, because I don't have fond memories about this building," Kruger said, recounting how K-State lost at McCasland Fieldhouse in his sophomore and junior seasons. Kruger and the Wildcats won at the Lloyd Noble Center, the Sooners' current home, in his senior season.
He never imagined he'd end up coaching at Oklahoma and trying to lead the Sooners past his alma mater in a transforming Big 12.
"There are some very, very good teams in the conference and we're going to be right there and hopefully set the bar for everyone else in the league," Kruger said. "That's how it's going to be."
Kruger met with his new players Sunday night and planned to hold his first practice Tuesday before heading out recruiting on Thursday.
"He seems very laid back," point guard Carl Blair said. "He told us he'd never scream at us but he'll definitely get his point across and make sure things get done. He seemed like a very cool coach. I'm just ready to go."
Kruger and Castiglione both told the crowd they wanted to find new ways to re-engage the fan base after dwindling attendance the past two seasons. Kruger plans to open practices to fans, something he's done at other schools but hasn't been done at Oklahoma in recent years.
"We have no secrets," Kruger said. "Partly, quite frankly, it's because our guys are going to work really hard. You guys watch them work and you'll like what they're doing. You know they're getting after it.
"And if we screw up a time or two, maybe you'll say, 'They're going to get there.'"
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