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USC's Kevin O'Neill returning to Tennessee for first time

The Trojans' men's basketball coach led the Volunteers from 1994-97 and left after a disagreement with the athletic director. USC plays Tennessee on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.

December 20, 2010|By Baxter Holmes

Reporting from Knoxville, Tenn. — Kevin O'Neill and Lane Kiffin are colleagues at USC, one coaching men's basketball, the other football, and each share a resume line of rare distinction.

Both coached at Tennessee — and burned bridges when they skipped town.

O'Neill abruptly bolted after a successful three seasons, from 1994-97, when a disagreement with the athletic director led to him leaving for Northwestern.

Kiffin exited Tennessee after 13 games in 2009 to take the USC gig, leaving without much of an explanation or a goodbye, which left Volunteers fans as bitter as whiskey.

But for the first time since his exodus, O'Neill is back, taking his Trojans (6-5) into Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night to face No. 18 Tennessee (7-2).

And he sure wishes Kiffin were here with him. "I always joked with him about it," O'Neill said, laughing.

O'Neill joked in July that he'd bring Kiffin to "keep the heat off me," adding, "We'd have to wear Kevlar instead of suits if we did, but at least we can stay at his house in Knoxville. It's never going to sell."

But, actually, the 14-room house with a lakeside view in West Knoxville, which Kiffin bought in 2009 for $2.6 million, is about to be sold to a family from Knoxville, said real estate agent Richard Smith. The deal should be done by mid-January. The price: $2,395,000.

And did Kiffin worry about selling it, since he lived there? Yes, Smith said, "But I told him, those people who it bothered aren't the kind of people buying $2-million houses."

O'Neill knew Kiffin couldn't come to the game Tuesday and said it would probably be disrespectful if he did. "It's best he's not here," O'Neill said.

Volunteers basketball Coach Bruce Pearl has come under fire for NCAA violations and said in November he wished Kiffin were here to deflect some of the flak aimed at him.

While Kiffin's name may be a curse word here, O'Neill's isn't nearly as tarnished. He has long praised Tennessee and called his exit immature. "If I had to do it over, I probably would have stayed," O'Neill said.

O'Neill took a Tennessee team that had won five games the season before he arrived to the NIT in his second season. He reeled in top-notch recruiting classes, and then watched from afar as they carried Tennessee to four straight NCAA Tournaments.

"We worked really hard for three seasons," he said. "We just didn't stay around for the parade."

O'Neill stays in touch with many colleagues from Tennessee, and several stopped by practice Tuesday to say hello, including legendary Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt.

For as much as this game could mean to O'Neill, he's not sure how fans will react to him.

"Well, I think they'll be able to separate me from Lane," O'Neill said.

He hopes.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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