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John Blanchette: Lon Kruger and Mark Few prove there is more than one path to greatness in college basketball coaching

UPDATED: Sun., March 21, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – There are 11 of them – 10 basketball teammates from almost 50 years ago, the other a baseball player – and they still stay in touch, because the good times then were really good and a connection became bond.

Reminders go out at various intervals – a wife’s birthday, an anniversary – because it’s a big group and many years have passed, so reminders are needed.

“And the guy who sends them out,” said Danny Beard, “is Lon Kruger. He never misses.”

Lon Kruger is the best basketball coach you’ve heard of but don’t pay any attention to, and Monday afternoon he sends his Oklahoma Sooners out against the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs of Mark Few, qualifiers pending.

Danny Beard, an elder in Spokane’s basketball community who predates even Hooptown boasts, was Kruger’s college roommate at Kansas State, and with those multiple connections may be more interested than most in the second-round matinee from Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.

And if not him, then maybe Ryan Spangler, who actually played for both coaches, a year under Few at Gonzaga before transferring closer to his Oklahoma home and wound up beating the Zags to the Final Four by a year.

But it’s an interesting pairing anyway, beyond any connections or Gonzaga’s unbeaten season thing or Oklahoma trying to pull off the ultimate shocker in a tournament already full of them.

Simply, there are different ways to get it done.

Few’s 22-year tenure as head coach without an NCAA Tournament miss aside from the one that was canceled – plus his 10-year apprenticeship as an assistant – make him a stayer of uncommon degree. Perhaps only Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim has carried loyalty to place to a greater extreme.

He coached and cajoled and believed Gonzaga could aspire to a national championship long before anyone else, and helped by the school’s outsized investment in the sport, authored an unprecedented story.

He’s the poster boy for continuity.

And then there’s Kruger – 35 years a head coach – who’s taken five schools to the NCAA Tournament, and four of them as far as the Sweet 16, an achievement equaled only by Tubby Smith.

In each case, he pulled programs out of the doldrums.

In his first job, at what was then called Pan American University, he took over a 5-20 team. His alma mater, Kansas State, had missed the NCAAs four straight years when he arrived. At Florida and Oklahoma, he had to dig out from NCAA probation. At UNLV, he stopped the post-Jerry Tarkanian churn of stopgaps, and at Illinois, he restored what had slipped in Lou Henson’s final years. All were steps up the ladder, save for UNLV – his rebound job after an unsuccessful stab in the NBA.

He has won 673 games and the universal acclaim of his peers for both his strategizing and his humanity. But he also is overlooked nearly as often.

Few is an unabashed fan.

“The best thing he does, he plays to his strengths and his teams play different every year,” he said. “This team, they just put the ball in (Austin) Reaves’ hands and let him play-make off that and figure out who they want to attack in isolations, and keep going at whoever that is if they think they have an advantage. It’s simple and yet brilliant in its own way.

“I think he lost Reaves prior to playing Alabama and they came out and beat Alabama, and now they have (De’Vion) Harmon sitting out and they beat Missouri (Saturday) night.”

But Spangler saw that adaptability in both his coaches.

“They can get a game plan going the week of in practice,” he said, “and by the first media time out see something and go a totally different direction.”

There is one difference, however.

“Few will get after you,” Spangler said. “If you upset Kruger, it’s more like you disappoint your grandpa.”

Kruger is in year 10 at Oklahoma, his longest stay anywhere – and you can tell he admires how the years at GU have allowed Few to construct “a true program. They’ve got a system, and expectations when you go into that program. And now it’s a destination for players.”

If Kruger’s been a career nomad by comparison, he’s no medicine show drummer. Beard might have nicknamed him “Slick” back in college, but that was for the Butch Wax he used on his hair. Oh, and there was this: “He could memorize the whole deck in gin rummy,” Beard said. “He knew every card in my hand.”

But that’s where the slick ends.

“He’s the gentleman of all gentlemen,” insisted Few.

The fact is, you can’t be as successful as Kruger has been at as many schools without a grounded approach. For all the stops, his turnover rate among assistants mostly mirrors Gonzaga, where continuity is king. Only at sanctions-saddled Florida did it take him more than three seasons to make the NCAAs. This tournament is his 20th.

It’s like someone sends him a reminder.

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