03/19/2004 12:00AM

UNLV dropped ball with Karl

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Lon Kruger officially became the new head basketball coach at UNLV this week, but he may not have been the most popular choice.

There are no knocks on Kruger's college career. His coaching record is 318-233 (.577) and he has revived four programs, at Pan American, Kansas State, Florida, and Illinois. One team he could not reverse was the pitiful Atlanta Hawks, but no one in the NBA would ever hold that against him.

A major issue in the UNLV search is that Kruger has never come under NCAA scrutiny - his integrity is top-shelf.

Since 1992, when legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian was forced to resign, UNLV has gone on what the Grateful Dead would call "a long strange trip" to find a replacement. Do the names Rollie Massimino, Tim Grgurich, Bill Bayno, Max Good, Charlie Spoonhour and his son Jay sound familiar?

They went through in Las Vegas what the basketball coaches at UCLA experienced in the long shadow of John Wooden. Like Wooden in Westwood, Tarkanian is revered in Las Vegas.

UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick insists that his national search was thorough. I suspect it was only as thorough as his own cell-phone address book.

The only other candidate to interview was George Karl, a longtime successful NBA coach and one of the most colorful characters in the game.

Karl is no stranger to Las Vegas. And when he appeared as a celebrity handicapper during the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Champion-ship in January, he was by far the most popular celebrity in Bally's race book.

Karl and his good friend and former player Tom Tolbert sat directly behind me during the NHC. I had a chance to speak with him, and he was most accommodating to me and, for that matter, to any fans who stopped by.

Karl, out of coaching, has been doing television work during this season. He said he would be interested in coaching again under the right circumstances.

Well, the right circumstances occurred a month after the NHC when Charlie Spoonhour resigned as UNLV coach, citing health reasons. Karl began lobbying for the UNLV job and hoped to get an interview with Hamrick.

Late in the season, signs supporting Karl popped up at UNLV games. Then, in a minor controversy, more signs were confiscated from fans on their way into Thomas & Mack Arena.

Karl eventually was given an audience with Hamrick, but as Karl told Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it was done out of courtesy, for Kruger already had the job sewn up.

While Kruger may turn out to be a great choice for UNLV head coach, George Karl may have been a better fit for this city.

While Karl has never coached college basketball, his NBA success was in the sport's pinnacle league. In recruiting young kids, Karl could sell with complete confidence that he knows what it takes to make it to the next level. And as far as character, Karl is a first-class person who has the charisma of a Tarkanian, a combination that could have turned Las Vegas on its ear again for UNLV basketball.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Radio Show.