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Suspension tears at USC's Kevin O'Neill

Coach says penalty was worse than being fired, which could still be a possibility. The Trojans remain a bubble team for Selection Sunday.

March 12, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC Coach Kevin O'Neill's job is on the line after an altercation he was involved in Thursday night in a hotel lobby with an Arizona booster.
USC Coach Kevin O'Neill's job is on the line after an altercation… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

The picture in his office shows a fruit stand advertising strawberries. The stand's sign reads "K.O'Neill."

USC Coach Kevin O'Neill has kept it since an anonymous "fan" sent it to him in the early 1990s when he coached at Marquette, telling O'Neill he should quit and sell fruit.

"It kind of symbolizes to me that this business is pretty fickle; here today, gone tomorrow," O'Neill said Saturday in his office.

O'Neill knows what he's talking about, because after an altercation he was involved in Thursday night in a hotel lobby with an Arizona booster, the second-year coach's job is on the line.

O'Neill was suspended for USC's semifinal game against Arizona on Friday in the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament, a game USC, coached by associate head coach Bob Cantu, lost while O'Neill watched from home.

"Gut-wrenching," he called it.

'"I've never been suspended from anything," he added. "Never. I've been fired. This was more painful than being fired."

Will O'Neill be fired again, as the website that first reported Thursday's altercation, pointguardu.com, alleged Friday?

"I think that decision will be made going forward," said O'Neill, 54, who is scheduled to meet soon with USC Athletic Director Pat Haden and senior associate athletic directors Steve Lopes and J.K. McKay.

A USC statement levying possible additional penalties is also expected soon.

Such penalties may include probation, a heavy fine, recruiting limitations, or a request/requirement that O'Neill enter some sort of alcohol counseling program, as he had had a few drinks prior to Thursday's altercation.

O'Neill said he wants to be at USC for "a long time" but that Thursday's incident won't be forgotten.

"Everybody makes mistakes, but you're not going to be allowed a second mistake like that, in any job, and I'm aware of that," he said.

Regardless, O'Neill, who's well aware of his reputation as a hard-worker on the court who at times plays hard off of it, said he can never again have a drink in public, especially after the photos of him with a drink posing with an Arizona fan were published online.

"This is a life-altering event for me, for the better," he said between apologetic phone calls to people, such as junior forward Nikola Vucevic and Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne, and a warm-wishing text message from former USC star Harold Miner.

O'Neill met with his players at 9:30 p.m. Friday after their loss to Arizona.

"I told them I did exactly what I tell them not to do and I hope it's a learning situation for them," he said.

"He's behind us when we make mistakes, and we're behind him," Vucevic said.

O'Neill looked worn, but he remained upbeat. He said nearly all USC's recruits and their families had reached out, pledging support.

He is expected to coach USC in a postseason tournament; just which tournament will be known Sunday at 3 p.m., when the 68 NCAA tournament teams are announced.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN's "bracketologist," has USC (19-14) among his "Last Four In."

Sports Illustrated "Bracket Watch" expert Andy Glockner tweeted that USC was among his last four teams in, as did Seth Davis, a national college basketball reporter for Sports Illustrated and CBS.

"I think they're an NCAA tournament team," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said.

If they're not, they'll be in the NIT.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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