Gene Kruger isn’t your typical assistant girls basketball coach.
That’s something even opposing players are quick to point out.
“Some of them have asked who that is,’’ Elkhorn senior forward Brittney Lynch said. “They think he might be someone’s grandpa.’’
Actually, the 86-year-old Kruger is a grandpa — just not to any of the players on the team. The longtime Elkhorn boys basketball coach and administrator is a member of the girls basketball coaching staff, and enjoying every moment.
“I’m glad they saved a spot for me,’’ he said. “I don’t know how much I’ve helped, but I know that we’ve got a great bunch of girls.’’
Lynch, the team’s leading scorer, said Kruger’s presence has indeed helped the Class B No. 2 Antlers.
“It’s really inspirational seeing him here,’’ she said. “And he’s always giving us tips and showing us different drills that have made us a better team.’’
Kruger has been a part of the Elkhorn scene for more than 60 years. He started at the school in 1949 after three years of teaching and coaching in his hometown of Arlington.
His teaching career lasted 36 years, and Kruger coupled teaching math with coaching basketball, football and track. There were times that he also took on duties as the district’s athletic director.
He was known as a strict coach and teacher who stressed the fundamentals in the gymnasium as well as the classroom. It’s something that’s still evident to Elkhorn girls basketball head coach Jennifer Wragge.
“He’s a stickler on those fundamentals, that’s for sure,’’ Wragge said. “He can pick up on the littlest things when the girls aren’t doing a drill exactly right. It’s amazing how much he knows about the game.’’
Kruger also has a saying that the Elkhorn girls have adopted and put on the back of T-shirts. That slogan goes, “Get nasty, not dirty.’’
“When he tells us to get nasty, he wants us to turn up the intensity,’’ Lynch said. “It’s something we say all the time.’’
Kruger guided the Elkhorn boys basketball team to the state tournament final twice in a three-year span. The Antlers — then competing in Class C — came up short in both games, losing to Hastings St. Cecilia 66-65 in 1969 and Pawnee City 49-43 in 1971.
“We had some great teams over the years,’’ he said. “But we just weren’t quite able to get that state championship.’’
Kruger also coached several track champions — he won a state high hurdles title in 1941 — and retired with a career basketball record of 330-135. He had a 37-27-2 mark as a football coach.
He has received numerous honors, including induction into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
For Kruger, that just wasn’t enough.
“I was helping the boys basketball team and then four years ago I switched over to be an assistant for the girls,’’ he said. “I can’t say enough about the job Jennifer has done as head coach and the wonderful players we’ve got.’’
The Antlers have one of their best teams ever after finishing 21-3 last season while reaching the Class A semifinals. Elkhorn won its first four games this year, lost to Class A No. 1 Bellevue West, and then rattled off 14 more wins.
Kruger, who turns 87 in April, has made it to most practices and games. He also keeps busy working at Big Red Publications, a business he started a while back when he couldn’t find a suitable basketball scorebook for his team.
Wragge said everyone enjoys having Kruger on the bench, though a recent game left her at least a little concerned. Elkhorn sweated out an overtime road win over third-ranked Gretna, the kind of game that leaves coaches and players exhausted.
“I was a little worried about him because he just had (double bypass) heart surgery in September,’’ she said. “He told the girls after the game that one was a little too close for comfort.’’
Kruger usually is content to watch the game quietly from the bench and give advice during timeouts and at halftime. But against Gretna, he waved his arms at least a few times while disagreeing with an official’s call.
“I haven’t gotten any technicals yet,’’ he said, “though I was known to get some back in my boys coaching days. One ref used to come up to me before games and ask ‘How many are you going to get tonight, Gene?’’’
The ageless Kruger said he doesn’t know how long he’ll keep coaching, saying that he just takes it one day at a time. He added he’s fortunate to have the support of his wife, Ruth. They have been married 67 years.
“She likes athletics,’’ he said, “and she likes me to stay active. This is what keeps me going.’’
Wragge said her team would love to come through with a state title for Kruger — something that has eluded him for so many years. Gene said he just hopes the Antlers reach the state tournament and get that opportunity.
“These girls deserve another chance at the title,” he said. “And if they can get it, that would really be the star on the horizon.”
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