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October 1, 2014

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THE B.S.:

Bruce Spotleson: Kruger brought new life to UNLV basketball

Solid UNLV hoops program is marketable, even for wild Las Vegas.

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Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

It’s easy to recite the formula for promoting tourism here: It’s all about our selection of gaming, shopping, entertainment and dining choices. Come have fun in Las Vegas.

In the past 15 years, we found that we could attract people to actually move here by promoting the previously underreported benefits of local life. Sunshine. No state income tax. Relatively easy commuting. Affordable housing—well, for most of those years, anyway.

Quite separate from all this messaging and promotion sits UNLV basketball. As anyone who’s been here any length of time has learned, nothing else markets Las Vegas on a national level in quite the same way as the Runnin’ Rebels. It gives us, well, a different sort of credibility.

UNLV basketball tells all Americans that, although our Las Vegas may sometimes be wild and crazy, we nonetheless have something quite sober in common with their towns. We have a university, and yes, it has a basketball team. Even better, it’s a pretty good one most years.

Other UNLV academic and athletics programs may be strong, but none has ever made the same national statement basketball has.

Which is why a basketball coaching change at the school causes so much local anxiety. In other cities, the headlines might not be as big. But in most other cities, a single college basketball program doesn’t matter quite so much.

As the coach and first lady of the UNLV program, Lon and Barb Kruger found fame in a hurry here, quickly earning royalty status in the community. All because of Lon’s job.

Basketball was in disarray when he got here. Bill Bayno’s program had pretty much imploded, and short-term good-guy Charlie Spoonhour never built a legacy before his health beckoned him to retire.

Kruger showed up with solid values, a vision and a plan, and the program soon was born again. UNLV got stable and won games, often on national TV.

The Krugers soon seemed to embrace the role they played here, too. Ambassadors. Fundraisers. Celebrities. The steady public faces of a university that seemed to be continually changing budgets or presidents or athletic directors or football coaches during Lon’s time here.

Though it pained us all to watch UNLV football over the past decade, he’d dutifully work the suites at Sam Boyd Stadium during games, upbeat, always shaking hands.

Last year, we got him to make an appearance at our company’s annual “Bring Your Child to Work Day” event. By definition, these sorts of things usually get out of control, broad age ranges sort of precluding any organized program.

Kruger showed up amidst some serious chaos, and it was all too apparent that the younger ones had no idea who the new adult was. Undeterred, he delivered a motivational pitch about doing well in school that somehow reached across their age spans. And then, he patiently signed about 50 personalized autographs, many of them for kids still wondering who he was.

With time, Barb Kruger grew into her own role here. Quiet by nature, she was accessible and gave time to community causes. She is a sweet person who understood the importance of her role in town.

We had some good basketball years with Lon in control, even getting to the Sweet 16 in 2007. That was, too, the year I came to appreciate the unique way UNLV basketball reflects on Las Vegas.

My daughter brought it home for me. A UNLV graduate pursuing a career that has taken her to other places, she’s by now heard almost every boring joke and stereotyped comment imaginable about what it means to be from Las Vegas.

She was never much of a basketball fan as a child. But in adulthood, few people have been happier when UNLV wins the big ones. Few people relish those victories over schools like Louisville or Kansas State as much.

But it’s not just alums who find pride in UNLV basketball. It’s almost anyone who has ever called this place home.

Some locals think it’s the right time for a coaching change; although it’s obvious I liked Lon and Barb, I can’t disagree. For a number of reasons, it’s time.

Our next coach will probably be just as popular in the community as Kruger was. That’s part of the job. But there’s this whole other dimension to UNLV basketball, which tells the world we’re not so different from them.

Anybody who ever had a home or a heart in Las Vegas knows it. Just ask my daughter.

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