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New USC basketball coach O'Neill is a tough guy in a tough job

He had run out of options and luck, as had USC amid NCAA inquiry, making it a perfect fit. In a dozen college seasons spent retooling junkers, O'Neill is still without stain.

June 23, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Midway through Kevin O'Neill's first public appearance as USC's basketball coach Monday, a cellphone rang.

"That's a $500 fine," he said immediately.

Moments later, another cellphone rang.

"We're $1,000 richer now," he said.

Goodness, if he's this tough on the media, what about the players?

The answer to that question, obviously, is what players?

At this point, USC doesn't really have any basketball players, and barely a basketball program.

Tim Floyd may have built a dream operation that earned a school-record three consecutive NCAA tournament bids, but when he skipped town a couple of weeks ago, he left something else entirely.

He left a nightmare. He left a program on the verge of NCAA sanctions for rules violations involving the alleged payment of O.J. Mayo.

He left a burning building, and the Trojans needed someone bold and desperate enough to run in the other direction, into the heat, the flames, and all those ashes.

For this, Kevin O'Neill is not only the best hire, he's the perfect hire.

Facing at least a year's basketball probation, the Trojans have nothing else to lose here, and neither does O'Neill, 52, who was out of work and out of luck.

"I didn't care what had happened," he said. "I was taking the job no matter what."

Facing new and increased scrutiny, the Trojans have to remain squeaky clean, and in a dozen college seasons spent retooling junkers, O'Neill is still without stain.

"We're going to deal with whatever comes out of this and be positive and move forward," O'Neill said.

Finally, facing the rebuilding of a program that has lost its four best players and seemingly all of its best recruits in the wake of the NCAA probe, the Trojans needed a tough guy who can hold things together.

That is O'Neill, who showed up Monday red-faced and rumpled, as if he had just finished airing out some 19-year-old slacker in the Heritage Hall lobby.

"I'm not Darth Vader," he protested.

That's not entirely true.

In his last visit to Pauley Pavilion, as the interim Arizona coach two seasons ago, he broke a blackboard in the locker room.

In his last permanent college head coaching appearance, at Northwestern, he cursed so loud and so often that season-ticket holders could recite every rip by heart.

He's tough and unforgiving, Ben Howland with a sharper edge, Bob Knight without the chair.

"Players don't always like the coach," O'Neill said. "Guess what, coaches don't always like all the players sometimes either."

While he has a career losing record as a college coach, he has led struggling Marquette and Arizona to the NCAA tournament, so he knows at least something about winning. And several years spent on NBA benches as an assistant and head coach mean he knows something about going to the next level.

If nothing else, he is known as a legendary recruiter. If nothing else, USC will certainly need that.

To all those Trojans fans who are complaining that he was Athletic Director Mike Garrett's fourth choice, that he's no Jamie Dixon or Jeff Van Gundy or Lon Kruger?

You really think any of those guys would agree to coach a team facing probably at least one season of meaninglessness?

You really think those guys would hook up with someone who is headed for jail?

Those kinds of reputations don't do ruins.

If you believe the reports that those coaches required an "out" clause so they could quit if the school were placed on probation, well, USC basketball has had enough quitting for now, and I don't blame Garrett if he refused to put that in a contract.

This is not a job that would interest a Coach K, this is a job for a Brand X, and O'Neill fits that well.

"If people did shy away from this job for some reason, I'm glad they did," he said. "I wasn't shying away from this job at all."

In his last college head coaching job, he led Arizona to the 2008 NCAA tournament and was promptly kicked out by a returning Lute Olson.

In his only NBA head coaching job, Jalen Rose and Morris Peterson gave him big minutes and the awful Toronto Raptors gave him one season.

In his most recent job, he was an assistant with those exciting young . . . Memphis Grizzlies?

These Trojans are those Wildcats and Raptors and Grizzlies in a different uniform.

"He's the guy that fits what I needed," Garrett said.

Yes, Garrett finally met the media Monday, standing next to the lectern after the news conference and answering every question about the school's potential athletic troubles. He shed little light but offered a human response, something desperately missing here in recent weeks, USC finally and smartly filling that void.

"We're in limbo," Garrett said of the basketball and football investigations. The NCAA "is in the process, and so are we, and we're working to get to the point where we can finally come to a resolution."

Garrett did acknowledge the possibility the basketball and football inquiries were linked, which would mean the NCAA is looking at a total lack of institutional control.

"That's what we're trying to find out from the NCAA," he said.

If that is the case, then perhaps the Trojans are working so hard to clean out the basketball program in hopes that the NCAA will leave the football program alone.

Kevin O'Neill, it seems, is just the man to take that bullet.

Just don't call me during one of his news conferences, OK?


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