Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2023


Lon Kruger changes course, accepts head coaching position at Oklahoma

Former Rebels Dave Rice, Reggie Theus emerge early as likely candidates for UNLV vacancy

NCAA Tournament - UNLV vs. Illinois

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Lon Kruger watches his team take on Illinois in the second round of the NCAA basketball championships Friday, March 18, 2011, at the BOK Center in Tulsa. Illinois won the game 73-62.

Updated Saturday, April 2, 2011 | 2:04 a.m.

Lon Kruger at UNLV

UNLV coach Lon Kruger waves to fans after cutting down the net following UNLV's 78-70 win over BYU in the Mountain West Conference championship game Saturday, March 10, 2007. Launch slideshow »

KSNV: Lon Kruger Leaving UNLV?

Ryan Greene discusses the potential departure of Lon Kruger as the UNLV Men's Basketball coach.

Selected tweets from Ryan Greene

  • "Hearing UNLV couldn't have extended him, as it's no guarantee that, with its financial troubles, it could have matched what he's currently making two years from now when his deal expired"
  • "The offer to Kruger from Oklahoma was its third push at him, he finally gave and said yes. 7 years, $16 million is what’s being reported."
  • "You’d have to think Dave Rice is UNLV’s first choice. At least he should be."
  • "If UNLV lands Dave Rice, consider Shabazz Muhammad coming to play for the Rebels a very, very strong possibility.”
  • "Would have been financially irresponsible for LK to say no to Oklahoma’s offer given UNLV’s current state. Can't blame him at all."
  • "LK will turn 59 in August. You'd have to assume this is his last stop. He'll retire in Vegas. Just built retirement palace in So. Highlands."
  • "Once Kruger leaving is official, it seems everyone I've talked to so far is in agreement on who the first call needs to go to: Rice"
  • "Two candidates who fit what UNLV can give : Rice and Theus. They need someone who wants the job as a dream job, not after just $$$."
  • "Just got confirmation that the UNLV team will be meeting on campus tonight."

Lon Kruger began his Friday as the UNLV men's basketball coach, packing for a trip to the Final Four and annual coaches' convention in Houston.

A few hours later, he'd finally given in to Oklahoma's persistence.

And a long, final day as the Rebels' head coach ended in the dark, quiet depths of the Thomas & Mack Center, where late Friday night, he met with a handful of his players and staffers after returning to town.

"I had no plans to leave early in the week," Kruger said to a group of media assembled down the hall from the team locker room. "Then they called back, and even the second time (I said no). They just stayed after it, asked to meet in Houston, which we did today, and at about 4 p.m. Vegas time, we decided to do it."

Kruger met with Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione and president David Boren, where he agreed to a 7-year, $16 million contract to take the reins of a once-proud program coming off of back-to-back losing seasons and a wave of NCAA violations.

He replaces the fired Jeff Capel, with Oklahoma paying a $500,000 buyout of Kruger's current deal that runs through 2012-13. Kruger's new salary in Norman will be roughly double the $1.1 million he was making annually at UNLV.

It wasn't just the money Oklahoma offered that was enticing, but rather the general financial security.

He's turned away interest from Arizona, USC and Oregon in recent years, but the current financial state of Nevada's system of higher education also helped tip the scales this time. Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed budget cuts, slashing universities' budgets by 17 percent. That said, there was no guarantee that Kruger could have maintained a similar salary if he were to sign an extension.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say the long-term financials are a part of it," said Kruger, who will turn 59 in August. "Yet, we've had those opportunities the last couple or three years, too. It's hard to measure the degree of uncertainty with budgets and the state and all of that. I didn't consciously stop to think about that, but certainly everyone's affected by that to some degree."

One word used unanimously by several in and near the men's basketball program to describe Friday's news was "shocked."

Earlier this week, Kruger addressed floating rumors connecting his name to the openings at Utah and Oklahoma with his players after one of the team's off-season workouts. He told them not to believe everything they read, assuring them nothing was going on.

"What I told them was exactly the truth," he said. "Things change, but when we talked about that, because I knew the rumors had gotten out there and that coincided with the time we said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' We didn't know for sure that we were going until mid-afternoon today."

The hook that ultimately pulled Kruger in was the third that Oklahoma had tossed at him. The Sooners were in dire need of landing a significant name who could restore some luster to the recently tarnished program. They originally reached out to Memphis' Josh Pastner and Marquette's Buzz Williams, but both instead signed long-term extensions and stayed put. Then came feelers towards Illinois' Bruce Weber, who also said no.

Kruger heads to Norman having gone 161-71 in his seven seasons at UNLV, which was the longest he'd stayed at any of his five posts in the college ranks. He took UNLV to the NCAA tournament four times in the past five seasons, including one Sweet Sixteen berth in 2007, and is just 21 wins shy of 500 for his career. The move gets Kruger back closer to his Midwestern roots, as he was born and raised in Silver Lake, Kan., and was beloved as both a player and coach at Kansas State.

He'll likely bring his entire staff with him to Oklahoma, maybe shifting the role of one or two of those guys in order to make space for another assistant from the outside who can focus on recruiting talent to the Sooner's depleted cupboard.

As for whoever takes over UNLV, the talent is in place to win right away, as the Rebels only lose two players to graduation off of a team that went 24-9, falling to Illinois in their NCAA tournament opener two weeks ago in Tulsa, Okla.

Two former UNLV players fit that bill, and both have the backing of the program's fans and boosters: Dave Rice and Reggie Theus. Though Kruger said he doesn't believe the program hit a ceiling under him in recent years, both Rice and Theus, many believe, have what it takes to keep things on the rise in the wake of his departure.

Rice, who played on UNLV's national championship team in 1990, is the associate head coach at BYU. He was previously a UNLV assistant for 11 seasons and is more than ready to take over a program of his own. Not only would his uptempo offensive system perfectly fit with the current group of players at UNLV, but he'd have immediate, built-in local recruiting ties through his brother, Grant, who is the head coach at powerhouse Bishop Gorman.

Theus suited up for the Rebels in the late 1970s under Jerry Tarkanian, and was the head coach at New Mexico State from 2005-07, leading the Aggies to a 41-23 record and one NCAA tournament appearance. He left there to take over the NBA's Sacramento Kings, and is currently an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's a noted star recruiter, as he was able to lure plenty of top talent from the East Coast to play for him in Las Cruces, N.M.

UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood could not be contacted on Friday to discuss the opening, and several messages left for him were not returned. He did, however, make his way down to Houston, where he will spend the weekend, likely beginning the search for his next major hire.

A source within the athletic department close to the situation told the Sun on Friday night that the process will likely be a quick one, lasting potentially no longer than two weeks.

As for the scene back in Las Vegas, it was a somber one late Friday night as members of the basketball program and administration filed out of the Mack following the brief meeting with Kruger.

Five players — Carlos Lopez, Kendall Wallace, Reggie Smith, Oscar Bellfield and Quintrell Thomas — showed up. A few others were out of town, while some were in town but didn't show. Kruger made a point of calling and talking to or either leaving messages for each of the players earlier in the day before heading back to town. News of his departure began leaking out at about 11 a.m. local time, and he wanted to speak with them once the deal was official.

"I didn't believe it at first," Wallace said. "It's definitely a little disappointing. It's a good offer he had, so you can't blame him. We wish him the best of luck. It was a good four years since I've been here.

"I think guys don't know what to think right now. It's kind of new, no one's really been through it. We really don't know what to think."

Still, with all of the talent coming back and where the program is now compared to when Kruger took it over before the 2004-05 season, the transition here in Las Vegas is likely to be smoother than it might be in Oklahoma, where Kruger said he'll be following the Rebels from afar.

"I think really, what we've done more than anything else, is we've established a really, really good foundation from which to keep growing," Kruger said. "There's a lot more room for growth. The next coach will tackle that, take it and hopefully keep it going.

"They're a special group. They'll play really hard and do great things."

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