Monday, USC athletic director Pat Haden cashiered basketball coach Kevin O’Neill in a move surprising at least for its timing. Even as O’Neill had struggled at USC with a 48-65 record, he had done it with a lot less baggage than football coach Lane Kiffin, who just finished a massively disappointing 7-6 season with a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.
There’s speculation that the Haden move was a pre-emptory strike against the possibility of O’Neill’s team making a strong second-half run, which would have made it more difficult to fire him. Perhaps there’s substance to that; USC thumped Utah Saturday, 76-59, on the road. The Trojans were 2-2 in the conference, and their performance immediately before that was a victory over a pretty good Dayton team.
No doubt a 7-10 start represented a disappointment for the Trojans, who were returning several players from 2011-12 injuries in what was the most star-crossed season in that department I can remember in the league. By the time O’Neill brought his team north to Washington in February, he was missing four starters from what had been the projected five in the previous summer.
This year, USC was hopelessly overscheduled, and you wonder why. O’Neill’s teams tended to schedule hard, but with so many injured players and a couple of transfers being integrated into the system, you’d think a softer landing would have been more advisable. Instead, in one seven-game stretch spanning November and December, USC played Illinois, Texas, Marquette, San Diego State, Nebraska, New Mexico and Minnesota. That’s suicidal.
O’Neill was a mercurial character who might have been hard to play for. But he was even-handed and honest with the media, not prone to issuing the politically correct statement. On a Pac-12 conference call referencing the pro prospects of ex-Cal guard Jorge Gutierrez, O’Neill said, “There’s not a lot of two-guards that are 6-3 or 6-4 in the NBA. Think of the guys you’ve gotta guard. Dwayne Wade? Kobe? There’s a challenging night.”
In 2011, he was asked about the weekend of guard USC guard Maurice Jones. O’Neill responded, “At Arizona State, he played great. At Arizona, he played awful.”
O’Neill seemed to take his dismissal philosophically. Monday, he told Jeff Eisenberg of YahooSports.com: “Right now, I’m going to go for a run on the beach, hang out with my wife and have dinner tonight. I’ll figure it out from there.”
Veteran assistant Bob Cantu takes over for the rest of the season, starting at home Thursday night with Oregon. Meanwhile, Haden’s choice to replace O’Neill will tell us a lot about what he envisions for USC basketball: Is it a place that should slip in and out of mediocrity as it has now for years, or one that should challenge UCLA on a consistent basis?
Here’s part of a piece I wrote last winter on O’Neill that describes the turmoil that seemed to surround him:
He’s Coach Crisis, the guy weird things just keep swirling around. A lot of it, he has nothing to do with, but you know, sometimes stuff just happens.
“I was expecting to walk out to the parking garage the other day and have a van fall on my head,” he said Tuesday. “That would have been perfect.” . . .
Back in 2007, O’Neill returned to Arizona as an assistant to Lute Olson. The aging head coach then took a leave of absence late that year, and it was soon designated a yearlong hiatus. The school revealed a coach-in-waiting plan whereby O’Neill would succeed Olson at some point.
It soon began getting weird. Olson would hang around the basketball offices and hold player meetings, apparently questioning O’Neill’s strategic ideas.
By the end of that season, Olson was holding a news conference in which he revealed that O’Neill wouldn’t be returning to his staff. Neither O’Neill nor the UA administration knew this.
So he left. Fourteen months later, USC was in turmoil as a result of an NCAA investigation into Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo and agent activities. Floyd was out, and then-Trojans athletic director Mike Garrett turned to O’Neill as a fallback choice.
By then, USC’s one-time haul of recruits who would have entered in 2009 had been released from letters of intent. That included Derrick Williams, the No. 2 choice in the 2011 NBA draft, and forward Solomon Hill, each of whom turned to Arizona.
The NCAA probe, joined with the interminable Reggie Bush saga, plodded on and was still unresolved during O’Neill’s first season (2009-10). USC self-imposed a postseason ban in 2010 and took other steps, but O’Neill maintains that the uncertainty scuttled a second recruiting year, thus netting “two blank recruiting classes.”
Partly because of that, there have been a lot of comings and goings at USC as O’Neill patched with transfers. He benefited from Alex Stepheson (North Carolina) and Mike Gerrity (Pepperdine). Fontan came from Fordham. Meanwhile, Bryce Jones, the highest-touted recruit from 2010-11, split for UNLV.
O’Neill got the Trojans to the NCAA tournament last year, but before that, there was a celebrated dust-up with an Arizona booster — an aged crony of Olson — at the Pac-10 tournament, for which USC suspended him a game.
And now, 2012. USC athletic director Pat Haden has said O’Neill will get more time, and he ought to. He’s bringing six scholarship players on this trip. His team would fit into a cab . . .