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BILL PLASCHKE

USC learns that the cost of honor is high

Trojans basketball Coach Kevin O'Neill is suspended for Pac-10 tournament after an apparent bar hop gone bad.

March 11, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • USC Coach Kevin O'Neill talks to his players during a break in the action against Washington.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill talks to his players during a break in the action… (Joe Nicholson / US Presswire )

On a strange and sullen Friday in the Pac-10 tournament, the area in front of the USC bench was deathly quiet.

Trojan athletics have rarely sounded stronger.

Among the many empty seats at the Staples Center was one involuntarily vacated by USC Coach Kevin O'Neill, whose rants were squelched when his boss, Pat Haden, once again buffeted "Fight On" with his own two-word chant.

No Fools.

O'Neill embarrassed the university in a Thursday night altercation with an opposing booster, and quicker than you can say new era, he was gone.

He was suspended for the remainder of the tournament even though there was no crime, no cops, no arrests, no lawyers, no charges, and no time for Athletic Director Haden to even sleep on it.

He was suspended even though the lack of his smart and passionate presence may have cost the Trojans a chance to upset Arizona in Friday's semifinals, the Wildcats winning 67-62.

He was suspended even though the loss effectively ended the Trojans' chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid after finishing the season one shy of that magical 20-win mark.

He was suspended and could be gone forever, even though some of next year's highly touted recruiting class might leave with him.

When Haden evaluated the ugly report and photos of what appeared to be an O'Neill bar hop gone bad, he knew what was at risk. But in giving up potentially loads of money and applause, he regained another piece of the Trojan integrity.

"We're not trying to make any kind of statement here," Haden said in a phone interview during the Trojan loss. "This is who we are."

This is who they are now. This is who they are since Haden was hired in June to clean up an athletic department whose behavior had become as outlandish as its success.

Consider this his strongest statement yet.

O'Neill, who is known affectionately as KO, actually knocked himself out, beginning Thursday night in a restaurant across the street from Staples Center when he was photographed smiling with an Arizona fan while still in his rumpled coaching clothes and holding what appeared to be an alcoholic drink.

The photos appeared on the Arizona fan site, pointguardu.com, that broke the story, and, although O'Neill was doing nothing wrong, he was doing everything wrong.

It's reckless for any coach of any team to be seen drinking and partying next to the arena the night before a big game.

Haden constantly preaches to his department that, in today's video age, there is no such thing as a private moment.

O'Neill ignored that advice, Trojan officials saw the photos and cringed, but then it got worse.

After leaving the restaurant — where he was hanging out with Trojan football Coach Lane Kiffin, who amazingly stayed out of this mess — O'Neill returned to the team's JW Marriott hotel to pick up something from his room.

While leaving the elevator in the lobby, O'Neill and his wife, Roberta, ran into Arizona booster Paul Weitman, who some feel helped push O'Neill out of Tucson when he was the interim coach there several years ago.

There are conflicting reports about what happened next, with O'Neill admitting to a verbal altercation while other reports claim that a shoving match ensued.

Whatever happened, security guards were summoned and asked O'Neill and his wife to leave the premises.

Sources say that the deeper the Trojans investigated the incident, the worse it became, and by 3 p.m., Haden apparently felt he had no choice. O'Neill was suspended so decisively that he was not even allowed to address his players, who learned of the decision from interim coach Bob Cantu.

O'Neill issued a public apology and, when reached later, said he agreed with Haden's verdict.

"I should be held to a higher standard of conduct of anyone on our team," O'Neill told The Times' Baxter Holmes. "I totally agree with the decision."

Though the Trojans pushed favored Arizona until the final seconds, they appeared distracted for stretches of the game and were clearly missing O'Neill's intensity until the end.

"It was different," center Nikola Vucevic said. "When KO's there, he yells a lot, and we didn't hear a lot of yelling today."

With around eight minutes left in the game, an insensitive, bored Staples Center video guy showed an Arizona fan holding a sign that said "Hotel Bar," and everyone howled, but it's really not funny.

What happens now?

After messing up on such a public stage at such a critical time, can O'Neill ever regain the respect of this team and program again?

Would he come back this spring for what will probably be a National Invitation Tournament bid? Or, because Haden didn't hire O'Neill, could this be a chance to make a change for good?

The guy can coach. But can the guy behave? It's clear now, under Haden, every member of the USC athletic department will have to answer some form of that that question.

And you thought BYU was the only place with an honor code.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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