USC has officially hired Kevin O'Neill as its men's basketball head coach in somewhat of a surprising move.
All of the smart money had the Trojans hiring Reggie Theus, until he reportedly pulled out yesterday after USC had supposedly reached out to Pitt's Jamie Dixon a second time. The LA Times wrote there were concerns about Theus' game coaching skills, which seemed to come out of left field. There had to have been something else to that. USC has also reportedly been turned down by Jeff Van Gundy and UNLV's Lon Kruger. Like I had written before, USC was not going to be able to hire an employed college head coach, and reaching out to Van Gundy was more of a prayer.
Kevin O'Neill comes to USC with a long coaching resume, that isn't necessarily distinguished. He's very well respected in coaching circles, and is widely recognized as an excellent defensive tactician. He's also known for being a coach who pushes his players hard and has his teams play very physical.
I've always personally liked O'Neill, and he seemed like a great coach when he recruited William Gates in the movie Hoop Dreams. But I'd feel better about this hire if O'Neill had a better track record of success. At Marquette, O'Neill did reasonably well, rebuilding a down program into an NCAA Tournament squad. But then he bolted for Tennessee, where in three years, he did no better than one NIT appearance.
Still, I kept hearing how highly regarded O'Neill was, and in an unusual move, he left Tennessee for Northwestern, which is one of the toughest programs to coach at in the country. The school obviously has tough academic standards and has never seriously competed in the Big Ten. O'Neill failed to turn the tide, and in three years at Northwestern he did no better than one NIT appearance.
O'Neill seemed to recognize that it was a bad situation for him, and he left to be an assistant coach with the Knicks, and later the Pistons in the NBA. He then surprisingly was hired to be the head coach for the Toronto Raptors, where he had a really lousy squad in playoff contention at 25-25. But they finished 8-24 the rest of the way, and O'Neill was fired after just one season.
O'Neill went back to the NBA assistant coaching circuit in Indiana, before returning to college as an assistant under his old friend Lute Olson at Arizona. O'Neill had worked with Olson in the late-80s, and many believed he was being designated as Olson's successor. Then Olson took an "indefinite leave of absence" about two weeks before the start of the 2007-08 season, and O'Neill was thrust into the head coaching spotlight for an unknown length of time. It turned out to be the whole season.
O'Neill was a poor fit at Arizona because his tough physical defensive coaching style was the exact opposite of Olson's running fast break game which he had used for years. Still, O'Neill won praise for taking over a difficult situation and managed to sneak Arizona into the NCAA Tournament after playing through a tough schedule. Many wondered if O'Neill would become the full-time coach, until Olson announced he wanted to come back and O'Neill was left out in the cold. Once again, O'Neill returned to the NBA assistant coaching circuit, where he seemed destined to remain for his career. That was until USC called this week.
While O'Neill hasn't had an enormous amount of success, there is something to be said for experience. At USC, he will probably have to deal with sanctions, and tempered expectations for a while. I'm assuming his contract will give him enough time to turn the program around through potential sanctions.
Still, while he's a great defensive tactician, this hire seems awkward at best. O'Neill is a decent recruiter, but it remains to be seen how many area recruits will want to play his style. He also has a history of leaving jobs quickly, so we'll see how long he wants to stick it out at USC if the going gets tough with sanctions.
As USC's 4th or 5th choice, there are some who might compare him to Pete Carroll. But then again, there's also a reason why O'Neill wasn't at the top of their list. It remains to be seen if this will work.
We will discuss O'Neill, as well as preview the NBA Draft, on my KSCR.org radio show (1560 AM downtown) from 12 to 2 PM today. At 1:30, we'll speak with Adam Rose of the LA Times, specifically about O'Neill.