McALLEN — Former Pan American University men’s basketball coach Lon Kruger may not have known it when he arrived at the school in 1982, but Thursday night was 36 years in the making.
UTRGV inducted Kruger, who is Oklahoma’s current men’s basketball coach, into the athletic department’s Hall of Fame and Lon and wife Barbara Kruger into the UTRGV Athletics Hall of Honor at a ceremony at the Valencia Events Center in McAllen.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Kruger, who was 29 when PAU hired him, said. “We brought a 2-year-old daughter, Angie, at that time. Our son, Kevin, was born at Weslaco Regional Hospital in 1983. We still have a lot of great friends that we love to talk to here in the Valley on a regular basis. I appreciate them for taking a chance on a young guy.”
Pan American hired Kruger away from Kansas State where he served as an assistant basketball coach for his alma mater. PAU was Kruger’s first college basketball head coaching job.
“Anytime you get the opportunity to coach a Division I program, that’s always exciting, No. 1,” Kruger said. “Then after we came down, we met the administration: President (Miguel) Nevárez, Judge (Ricardo) Hinojosa and those folks. The people impressed us so much. The people were great. We weren’t disappointed.”
Kruger coached at PAU for four years and compiled a 52-59 overall record in Edinburg. His finest season was his final season. The Broncs went 20-8 during the 1985-86 season, equaling the program’s highest winning percentage (.714) which happened in 1980.
Programs took notice of Kruger’s achievement and one in particular zeroed in on him as its top target: his alma mater Kansas State. Kruger rejoined the Wildcats after the 1985-86 season and began a stretch of success few NCAA Division I head coaches have ever experienced.
Kruger coached Kansas State (1986-90), Florida (1990-96), Illinois (1996-2000), UNLV (2004-11) and Oklahoma (2011-current) to NCAA Tournament appearances at each institution, becoming the first head coach to achieve such a feat.
Sprinkled in between his college coaching years are coaching tenures leading the Atlanta Hawks (2000-03) and assisting on Don Chaney’s staff with the New York Knicks (2003-04). But the Valley, and specifically UTRGV, have always held a special place in his heart. Lon and Barbara made the first six-figure donation in the athletic department’s history.
“This is a very caring and supportive community,” UTRGV athletic director Chris King said. “What he (Kruger) was able to do in such a short period of time was incredible. We’re glad we had the opportunity to honor him and his wife tonight.”
UTRGV coach Lew Hill was one of Kruger’s longtime assistants from the UNLV and Oklahoma years. When Hill was being looked at for other head coaching opportunities in 2016, Kruger sold Hill on the benefits of living and working in the Valley.
“He sold me on the Valley and then I had to sell my wife on it,” Hill said. “He thought I could jumpstart the program and build a winner the way he did at UNLV and Oklahoma.”