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January 19, 2022

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

In hiring Kevin Kruger, UNLV lands a coach whose heart is in Las Vegas

Kevin Kruger

Courtesy of UNLV

Kevin Kruger gives instructions to UNLV players during a timeout in this undated file photo. Kruger, a former player and an assistant coach to T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV, was introduced Monday as the Rebels new head coach.

This Las Vegas-area high school basketball standout was narrowing in on where he would play college basketball. His final three schools: Oklahoma, Florida State and hometown UNLV.

Kevin Kruger, then an assistant coach for his dad, Lon, at Oklahoma, was instrumental in making sure Jalen Hill of Clark High would pick the Sooners. The younger Kruger, still relatively new to the profession in his mid-30s, was relentless in his pursuit of the four-star forward.

Kruger was frequently spotted in the stands on Clark game days. He was also at the Clark gym for practice and in near-constant communication with Hill’s family. He went above and beyond to land the prospect.

“He was here very often,” then Clark coach Chad Beeten said. “He worked really hard at building that relationship.”

The courtship gives a small glimpse into the work ethic of the 37-year-old Kruger, the star of UNLV’s 2007 Sweet 16 team who was hired Sunday to helm the Rebels’ program and lead it back to prominence.

What won over Hill and his family, and what impressed Beeten throughout the recruiting process, is exactly what makes Kruger a home run hire for UNLV. Kruger is the real deal, especially when it comes to building relationships.

“Absolutely smart, kind and genuine. That’s probably the best word I can use is genuine,” Beeten said. “That is what Jalen and his family were looking for. They were looking to see who was really genuine with their family.”

Kruger, of course, had a great teacher in his dad.

Lon Kruger is one of the game’s most respected coaches, and one of only three to lead five different universities to the NCAA Tournament. He went to the Final Four with Florida and Oklahoma, and was the architect of the resurgence at UNLV, which had four NCAA Tournament appearances during his tenure from 2004 to 2011. The Sweet 16 run in 2007 with Kevin leading the way represented UNLV’s first tournament wins since 1991 when Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were dunking over just about every opponent under Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Listen to Kevin Kruger speak and it’s easy to spot the similarities he and his father share in their approach to their profession. Both are well spoken and have a certain level of conviction in their voices. Both speak about their desires to put the player first. Kruger has a plan for UNLV, and you get the sense that it’s going to work.

“(His) love for this university, this city and this state is unparalleled,” said Desiree Reed-Francois, the UNLV athletic director. “He has been preparing for this job his entire life. He will obviously win the right way. ... We are fortunate that he is ours.”

After losing coach T.J. Otzelberger after two seasons to Iowa State, it was important for the university to hire someone who will bring stability to the program. It was even more important that person understands UNLV basketball’s history and tradition.

Kruger gets it: There’s no place like home at UNLV.

Kruger sees himself still coaching at UNLV in 10 seasons and raising a family here, with daughter Cameron running throughout the hallways of the Rebels’ facilities, the Mendenhall Center and Thomas & Mack Center. He spent his childhood moving from city to city as dad elevated up the coaching ranks, finally landing in Las Vegas, which became home.

“This not a stepping-stone (job) at all,” Kruger said. “This is where we want to be. This is home.”

He’s been front and center for sellout crowds at the Thomas & Mack Center, or for when fans stormed the court to celebrate Mountain West championship wins against BYU. UNLV was at such an advantage that other coaches in the league wanted to move the tournament from Las Vegas. Attendance at UNLV home games has painfully dropped over the past five seasons — something Kruger knows is a top priority to fix.

Kruger repeatedly says that the UNLV program belongs to the people of Las Vegas. After all, the home court edge with them filling the Thomas & Mack is worth a few extra wins each season.

“I don’t think there is a better venue than when the Thomas & Mack Center is rocking,” he said.

While hiring someone with no head coaching experience is undoubtedly a calculated risk by the university, it’s a risk clearly worth taking. Kruger had been an assistant for eight seasons, including the last two at UNLV.

When Kruger details his vision for building a winner, it comes with the experience of being here for when a winner was built from the ground up. (Let’s be honest, a Sweet 16 appearance is likely the cap for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013.)

He says the program will play a style of basketball the city can be proud of and that “we are going to fight. We are going to compete. We will have a team that is easy to root for.”

You get the sense, just like in Kruger’s pursuit of a prized prospect a few years ago, that Kruger won’t stop working until the vision is complete.