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 Friday, May 26
Kruger succeeds Wilkens with Hawks
 ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- Illinois' Lon Kruger, who has never played or worked in the NBA, is the new coach of the Atlanta Hawks.

Wednesday, May 24
It's a great call for the Hawks to tab Lon Kruger for the head-coaching job. Clearly, they have looked toward the college ranks for coaches with a fresh outlook. Not only Tom Izzo would have made a great choice, but also Lon. He is a very good tactician and understands players and how to handle personalities.

Now that the pro game seems to be getting a little bit younger, it doesn't necessarily take someone who has been a longtime NBA assistant or head coach to be effective at that level. I don't think it will be much of an adjustment for Kruger to the NBA game. Although the NBA will require adjustments in terms of substitutions and exploiting matchups, there are some levels on which the NBA game is more straightforward than the college game.

In addition to the life-changing amount of money he will make, I'm certain one of the reasons Kruger is taking the Hawks' job is that it allows him the opportunity to have a life. With the way that college basketball is changing, you not only have to continue recruiting, but you have to recruit on top of players. Recruiting has become much more intense than in years past.

The pro game has become more attractive to college coaches because NBA coaches don't have to recruit. There's no longer the need to scour the nation and worry about guys going pro. You are constantly scrambling on the college level. It's a 365-day-a-year job, whereas the NBA is not like that.

I think it's a great move on Kruger's part and one that is more than understandable. I feel for the college game losing Kruger, but we're going to see more and more of it. This is not the end.

General manager Pete Babcock said Thursday he knew the choice would not be popular with some but insisted Kruger was the best candidate because he is a strong teacher. The Hawks struggled this season under Lenny Wilkens, who was criticized for his reluctance to play young players.

"We wanted someone who had a strong sense of discipline, structure, who played the game the way we think it should be played," Babcock said at a news conference. "This was just a perfect fit for us."

Babcock said Kruger would easily make the adjustment to the professional game. "He understands it's a players' game," Babcock said. "The NBA could learn a lot from the good qualities of college basketball."

Kruger is excited about working with the Hawks.

"The players are a great blend of veterans and youth," he said. "I'll learn more from them than they'll learn from me. We'll do things with each other, for each other."

Kruger, who called Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo the league's best defensive player, said he has talked with several players.

Hawks spokesman Arthur Triche declined to discuss Kruger's contract length or terms, but published reports say he received a five-year deal worth $10 million.

Kruger was the second Big Ten coach to be offered the job. Michigan State's Tom Izzo turned down a reported $15 million, five-year contract to take over the Hawks after leading the Spartans to the national championship.

Kruger said his interest in the professional game -- as opposed to college basketball -- has been more from the perspective of a fan.

"You zero on teams you know, coaches you know or when you know players," he told the Journal-Constitution. "But I have noted the two games are becoming more similar each year. The NBA is having a strong influence on the college game with pick-and-roll stuff, the basis of the triple post."

Kruger, who led Illinois to the second round of the NCAA tournament in March, was hired late Wednesday. Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history, resigned last month after a 28-54 season.

Kruger said it was very difficult to tell his players at Illinois that he would not be back. "They were great," he said. "They made it easier than it could have been."

Last season's Illinois team was 22-10 and returns every starter next season. It lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual national runner-up Florida.

"I would always rather replace coaches because of their success," Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said. "This was a personal, career and financial decision by Lon and his family."

Kruger had a record of 318-233 in 18 years at Texas-Pan American, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois. He took the Gators to the Final Four in 1994 and was 81-48 in four years at Illinois.

Lon Kruger
Lon Kruger is 81-48 in four seasons at Illinois.

The Hawks' record last season was their worst since the club moved to Atlanta in 1968.

Kruger's decision came in a hurry. Sources close to Kruger told ESPN.com on Wednesday afternoon that the coach was torn over what to do because he has a son in high school and is actively involved in the area basketball program. The sources said Kruger has the demeanor to be a NBA coach.

"After 1994-95, Lon had several NBA opportunities," said first-year Western Michigan coach Ron McCullum, who was a Kruger assistant at Florida and Illinois until last month. "When Lon was an assistant with the World Championships team with Del Harris and Rudy Tomjanovich two years ago, that really perked his interest (in the NBA). He was intrigued with the whole thing. He's got a great basketball mind."

Illinois could have its pick of high-profile candidates to replace Kruger. Illinois has a chance to be a Final Four team in 2001 and consistently has been one of the most coveted jobs in the Big Ten.

The Illini return guards Cory Bradford, Frank Williams, center Brian Cook and forward Marcus Griffin -- all potential All-Big Ten and All-American candidates. Nine of the Illini top 10 scorers return from the team that tied for fourth in the Big Ten. And the recruiting talent base in Chicago makes the job even more attractive.

"The cupboard is definitely not bare," McCullum said.

Bill Self, who signed a long-term deal at Tulsa after the Golden Hurricanes' Elite Eight appearance, will be atop the list of potential candidates. The Tulsa community raised $300,000 to keep Self at the school, but he can get out of the contract if he wants to this summer. Self was a candidate at Nebraska, Georgia Tech and Memphis but declined to pursue those jobs.

When Kruger was hired in 1996, Tulane coach Perry Clark had been a candidate for the Illinois. Washington coach Bob Bender, Bradley coach Jim Molinari and Creighton coach Dana Altman may also get consideration for the Illinois job along with Clark and Self. Illinois-Chicago coach Jimmy Collins (a former Illinois assistant) as well as current Illinois assistants Derek Thomas and Rob Judson will also be in the mix.

College coaches have had a less-than-stellar record in the NBA.

Former Kansas coach Larry Brown has been the most successful in numerous professional stints, with the last one at Philadelphia. Former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino is struggling to get Boston in the playoffs and former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo (with Portland and Golden State) and former UMass coach John Calipari (with New Jersey) are out of NBA jobs. Calipari has since returned to college, taking over at Memphis at the end of last season.

Reporting by ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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