Reporting from Tucson
A mystery novel helps him churn the elliptical machine two to three nowhere miles a day, every day. It is then, usually in the afternoons, that Kevin O'Neill escapes into narratives of crime, sex and murder.
"I see too much real-life stuff," the USC basketball coach said. "I'd rather read fiction."
Recently, Dean Koontz's "Breathless" helped dissipate the miles. Other days, it's some work by James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell or Nelson DeMille. O'Neill plows through two, sometimes three books a week in the off-season, just one a week during the season.
The title of his latest read fits his team.
Breathless, exhausted and empty, a shriveled orange squeezed of its juice so that only arid pulp and rind remain. "That's a very good description of where we're at," O'Neill said.
Still, for a team picked to finish ninth in the Pacific 10 Conference, the Trojans have won 16 games and were in contention for the league title until this week.
Today's game against Arizona ends USC's season, which started slow but was gathering steam — eight straight wins, including three over teams that appear headed for the NCAA tournament — before the school in January announced self-imposed punishment that included a ban on participation in any postseason tournament this year.
The Trojans are 6-9 since that announcement but have been competitive in every game and rank fourth in the nation in defense, giving up 56.2 points per game.
Hanging in there hasn't been easy.
"I'm as tired now as I've been in any season, including an NBA season," said O'Neill, who has coached 28 years, including eight in the NBA. "I've coached uphill a lot, but the incline on this one was pretty good," he said.
Three players left early from last season, five committed recruits never showed up and, early on, injuries thinned a lineup already missing two key players who began the season ineligible.
"You couldn't write a script with more difficult circumstances," O'Neill said.
Trying to keep morale and energy high, the coach practiced his team hard just once a week — usually Tuesday, for about an hour and a half — and went with light 20-minute shoot-arounds on the others.
Beyond that, he had to contend with the specter of an NCAA investigation into USC's football and men's basketball programs — which included an allegation that former coach Tim Floyd delivered money to an associate of former Trojans star O.J. Mayo.
"People look at you as a program as though you're tainted," O'Neill said. "They're like, ‘Oh, USC, that's the school that hands out money.' ."
O'Neill said it comes up constantly in recruiting, with opposing programs saying the Trojans are in for harsh penalties. USC appeared before the NCAA Infractions Committee late last month, but a decision on possible sanctions is not expected to be known for another month or two.
"Our program has been crippled by this investigation and there's no wand that's going to be waved over it to make it everything magically better," O'Neill said.
Several opposing coaches have praised O'Neill's work this season. "It must be hard to coach when you can't go to the postseason," Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. "He's done a great job."
Asked whether he could have gotten any more out of his team this season, O'Neill deferred to his players. But senior guard Dwight Lewis said O'Neill's passion for the game kept them going.
"It means a lot, especially when your head coach works hard, as hard as he does, and has as much passion as he has," Lewis said. "He'll yell at us and tell us we're messing up, but, right then, he'll give us a compliment and build us right back up."
Win or lose, O'Neill usually sleeps only a few hours. "I'm wired after every game," he said. "Always been like that, for me. After games, I always think about it."
Said his wife, Roberta: "I tell him to take a day off once in a while."
O'Neill plans to spend most of this month and next recruiting, then he'll head to a house on a lake in Lyon Mountain, N.Y. (population 458), to relax and reflect.
Looking back now, he calls this one of his "most rewarding years" in coaching.
"They didn't give up on each other at all," he said of his players, "and they overachieved more than they think they did.
"They'll figure out as they go along how much they gave."