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Fire still burns inside Kruger as he returns to Las Vegas

The view never matters. Whether you glance beyond the window and notice mountains or water or a Midwest grassland, whether it is scorching hot or brutally humid or a few icicles below freezing, the outline of his father remains an unceasing figure of work.

“Wherever the job has taken him, whether it has been Florida or Atlanta or Las Vegas or Oklahoma, it has always been the same,” Kevin Kruger said. “I will walk into the room and there he will be, sitting in his chair watching game film.

“The only difference now is the horse outside.”

The son didn’t fully understand why his father left Las Vegas, but he never thought it was solely about the financial security that a seven-year, $16.6 million contract can provide generations.

Maybe it was to return to a part of the country in which he was born and later starred as a three-sport athlete.

Maybe it was the challenge of yet again building a basketball power within the shadow of a football monster.

Maybe he thought his work was done in Las Vegas.

More than anything else, Lon Kruger was hired as UNLV’s basketball coach in 2004 to bring professionalism and consistency to a program that had strayed off path, to not only make winners of the Rebels and return them to a national standing, but also to restore pride in what had become an afterthought of a team across the country.

Kruger is back in town this week, bringing his 15th-ranked Oklahoma side to meet No. 16 Washington in the MGM Grand Showcase at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Grand Garden Arena. UNLV then plays No. 14 Utah at 8:30 p.m.

Oklahoma has followed a familiar course when it comes to Kruger and his ability to walk through doors and make things better as the years pass, much as he did at UNLV in leading the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament in four of his last five seasons.

But many believed that when he left for Norman, he had reached his peak at UNLV, that another was needed to recruit a higher-level caliber of player and in turn produce deeper runs into March Madness, that the coaching part, of which Kruger never has been lacking, wasn’t enough.

The recruiting part has occurred under Dave Rice.

The deep runs haven’t.

There hasn’t been as much as a jog.

UNLV hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since Kruger departed. The Rebels, in fact, have only advanced past their first NCAA game twice since a second straight trip to the Final Four in 1991, and both times came under Kruger. They went to the Sweet 16 in 2007, then beat Kent State the following season before falling to Kansas.

“The (pressure of winning) goes with the territory in varying degrees, no matter where you are,” Lon Kruger said. “UNLV won a national championship in 1990. That sets the bar very high for whoever the coach is, but all you can do is line up and try to make progress. We were never overwhelmed by (expectations) in Vegas. We loved our time there, loved that the community was so engaged with the program.”

He went 15-16 his first year at Oklahoma, 20-12 the next, 23-10 the next and now has the Sooners at 6-2 and comfortably viewed as a Top 25 program, with the only losses this season coming at Creighton and to No. 5 Wisconsin. Kruger faced this test before in leading Florida to a Final Four, convincing a fan base whose idea of weekend worship is kneeling at the sight of a 100-yard field and two goal posts that a sport with baskets is also worth their attention.

It’s about embracing and taking advantage of the brand more than anything else. There are worse fates than hosting a basketball recruit on the weekend of an Oklahoma football game, an atmosphere that can sell a lot of athletes in a lot of different sports.

The Sooners lost to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament championship game in 1988; they lost to Indiana in the Final Four in 2002. They have proven in the past few decades that winning at a high level in basketball is possible amid all the touchdowns.

“I think the Oklahoma brand is even more powerful than we first imagined,” Kruger said. “They’ve had really good basketball teams here, really good players, a strong tradition.”

He has it going in Norman now, much as he did in a fourth season at Florida and UNLV. He is 62, was the Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year last season and doesn’t appear anywhere near thinking about how long he might continue drawing X’s and O’s, although he and wife Barb kept their home in Las Vegas and could one day make this town a retirement destination to some degree.

“I know he doesn’t have 40 years left,” said Kevin, who is 31 and spent one year as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma before joining the staff at Northern Arizona as a full-time assistant this season. “I think the thing that stands out about him are the very few bad apples he has had on teams over the years. He has never put up with kids who hamper the college experience for others with selfish decisions in the locker room or off the court. He doesn’t want guys who are bad teammates. He gets rid of those guys.

“That’s one of the many things I hope to take from him in my own coaching career. I would take all he has accomplished in a heartbeat. I sure hope I have 40 years left. That would put me over 70 and still coaching. I’d take that right now.

“Selfishly, I hope (his father) hangs around doing it for a long time. I know he still really enjoys it.”

The only difference now?

That horse outside.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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