Monday, March 15, 2004 | 9:16 a.m.
UNLV planned to reveal the worst-kept secret in college basketball today and introduce Lon Kruger as the new Rebels men's basketball coach.
First-year athletic director Mike Hamrick was expected to make the formal announcement at a morning news conference. Hamrick told the UNLV players Sunday night.
"Lon Kruger surely meets all the criteria that we set for the search," said Hamrick, who planned to introduce Kruger to a group of 20 or so well-connected Rebels boosters after this morning's news conference.
"He's a successful college head coach who has taken a team to the Final Four. And he's done it with integrity and class."
Terms of the multiyear deal were not immediately available. Kruger and Hamrick were expected to attend this week's Board of Regents meeting in Las Vegas on Thursday and Friday. The board must approve any contract longer than three years.
After Charlie Spoonhour resigned for health reasons on Feb. 17, Hamrick moved swiftly in gauging Kruger's interest in the job with him and his wife, Barbara.
UNLV's location, the Las Vegas community, the program's tradition and a potentially rich recruiting base coaxed Kruger, 51, to pursue the position with zeal.
During a second trip to Las Vegas 11 days ago, Kruger, who resides in the Phoenix area, and Hamrick refined contract figures, and Kruger was brought up to speed about UNLV recruiting efforts and contacts.
Early in his search, Hamrick talked about receiving dozens of phone calls, messages and other inquiries from interested candidates on a daily basis. Apparently, however, nobody else matched the prerequisites that Kruger possessed.
That included former NBA coach George Karl, who played at the University of North Carolina but has never coached at the collegiate level. Hamrick desired someone who has achieved success as a college coach, but he still met with Karl for a courtesy chat.
Inside the coaching fraternity, it had been common knowledge that Kruger had been making many inquiries, and fielding many more calls from prospective assistants, about assembling a staff at UNLV.
Hamrick moved rapidly to secure Kruger to deflect other potential suitors, such as Utah, and influential Las Vegas boosters played a major role in constructing a multiyear deal almost certainly worth seven figures annually.
Jay Spoonhour, named the UNLV interim coach after his father stepped aside, was never considered as a serious permanent candidate by Hamrick.
Western Illinois coach Derek Thomas, a former Rebels assistant who was hired by Kruger at Illinois and then went to the Atlanta Hawks with Kruger, said UNLV made a superb move in hiring Kruger.
"From a general perspective, the man's won everywhere he's been at the collegiate level," Thomas said. "He took Kansas State to the Elite Eight, and the Wildcats haven't done that since. He took Florida to the Final Four, which the Gators had never done before.
"And that NBA experience is vital, because he knows people all over the world. He has a certain level of expectations everywhere he goes. If he doesn't feel he can do that, he won't take those kinds of jobs."
Efforts to reach Kruger were unsuccessful.
He was fired by the Hawks, halfway through a five-year deal worth $10 million, during the 2002-03 season, after going 69-122. Hawks owner Stan Kasten refunded nearly $500,000 to season-ticket holders when the team failed to achieve management's preseason playoff vow.
Kruger hooked on with the New York Knicks, assisting Don Chaney, this season, but Chaney and his staff were sacked two months ago.
The Krugers relocated to Phoenix, where they watched their son Kevin, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard at Arizona State, play for a couple of months. Kevin Kruger averaged 5.3 points, almost two rebounds and a bit more than two assists.
Some had speculated that Kruger might be a natural fit to take over at ASU, where coach Rob Evans just completed a disappointing sixth season in which the Sun Devils finished 10-17 despite the presence of powerful sophomore center Ike Diogu.
However, a source in Phoenix said Kruger was too close with Evans to ever feel comfortable replacing such a good friend. In addition, Kevin Kruger wouldn't exactly like being coached by his father.
Thomas said it would be difficult to guess how quickly Kruger might turn UNLV into a major player.
"You have to look at what he wants to do with the program, the style of play he wants to play and the players there," Thomas said. "It's hard to gauge what a person can do with a program until he gets in there and starts rolling."
Kruger gained acclaim as an athlete at Silver Lake (Kan.) High, where he lettered all four years in baseball, basketball and football.
At Kansas State, he helped the Wildcats win two Big Eight Conference titles and earned that league's player of the year honor twice. He played baseball, as an infielder and pitcher, well enough to play in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals for one season.
A near-scratch golfer, Kruger has been able to shave that handicap over the winter on some of the finer courses in and around Phoenix.
At Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, Kruger had an 18-year record of 318-233.
Pan Am had won only five games before Kruger arrived. Three seasons later, it went 20-8. When Kruger returned to his alma mater, the Wildcats advanced to the NCAA tournament in four consecutive seasons for the first time in the program's history.
In that second season, with Mitch Richmond, Kansas State went to the Elite Eight before losing to North Carolina for a spot in the Final Four.
Kruger repeated that success in Gainesville, Fla. In his fourth season as Florida's boss, he completed a transformation from a moribund program (7-21 before he arrived) into a Final Four participant that won a school-record 29 games.
Former South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler rejoiced when Kruger left Florida, and the Southeastern Conference, to take over at Illinois in 1997.
"In some ways, I'm happy to see him go because he can coach his tail off," Fogler said. "His teams are extremely difficult to play and beat. Lon took Florida from rock bottom to the Final Four."
In nine NCAA tournaments, Kruger is 11-9. If he guides UNLV into that tournament, it will be the fourth program he has steered into the NCAAs. Only Eddie Sutton and Jim Harrick have accomplished that feat.
And his programs have never attracted NCAA investigators, something Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski noted when Kruger was at Illinois.
"Without a doubt, Lon is one of the best tacticians in the game," Krzyzewski said. "I love Lon. He does everything above board. He has a program (Illinois fans) can be proud of."