Kevin O’Neill Out As USC Head CoachPosted by AMurawa on January 14th, 2013
Last we saw USC’s basketball team, they were snapping a 14-game road losing streak while demolishing Utah in what was maybe their best performance in about 22 months. Talented junior forward DeWayne Dedmon had just put the finishing touches on a third consecutive excellent performance, the backcourt triumvirate of Jio Fontan, J.T. Terrell, and Byron Wesley had played their best game as a collective unit, and the Trojans found themselves squarely in the middle of the Pac-12 standings. And for these, admittedly diminished, accomplishments, head coach Kevin O’Neill was rewarded on Monday morning with… his walking papers? Really?
The surprise is not so much that O’Neill’s job was in jeopardy – a 13-36 record over the past year and a half guaranteed that, not to mention his brusque manner and often unappetizing style of play – but that athletic director Pat Haden was so intent on getting rid of O’Neill that he would make the change in the middle of the year and at a time when USC basketball was on a relative upswing. Two reasons for the timing of the change have been speculated upon: First, the idea that O’Neill had lost the locker room, and secondly, the possibility, as speculated by a Jeff Goodman source, that Haden didn’t want to be tied to O’Neill for the long term, so he got rid of him before this team could turn the corner and win enough games to earn the head coach another year. Both of those ideas are a little cynical, so it is fair to point out that perhaps Haden thinks that this team has the capability of playing better than it has to this point, believes that he can get more out of his team with Bob Cantu as the new interim head coach, and, rather than resting on the laurels of a win over Utah as an accomplishment worth celebrating, he was willing to make the hard choice now.
But really, the fact of that matter is that this is the new trend in college sports: If you know you’re going to make a coaching change at the end of the year, get a head start on the competition for available coaches and fire your current head coach early. Arizona played that card a year ago on the gridiron side of things, firing Mike Stoops at midseason to jump full-force into a coaching search and wound up scoring a coup with Rich Rodriguez. Ohio State found itself in a position to land Urban Meyer after being forced to play a season with an interim coach. The fact is, with Haden having made the decision that O’Neill was not a part of the long-term plans for his institution, getting rid of him immediately provides USC with a head start on all the other teams that will be looking at new head coaches this offseason. Haden can identify potential targets, discuss with those targets their level of interest, and once the season ends, move quickly to secure that person.
Speaking of which, just who might be the next USC head basketball coach? The main target of early speculation is Pitt’s Jamie Dixon, a Los Angeles product, and he will certainly get a call. And, he might be interested in escaping cold winters and a suddenly reeling Panther program’s transition into the ACC. But if a more appealing brand of basketball is a priority, it is hard to see Dixon as much of an upgrade. Steve Lavin is another coach currently back east with ties to the Los Angeles area, and he would certainly bring a more up-tempo style, although it is hard to see him giving up on the St. John’s experiment so soon. Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s should be a name tossed around for any head coach opening; he’s a fine coach and a good guy who has proven his ability to build a program, but a recent NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations could damper down that lead. And then there’s Dan Monson, down the road a spell at Long Beach State. He launched Gonzaga onto the national map with their Elite Eight run in 1999, then chased the big dollars to Minnesota, a program that was hamstrung a bit by NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Clem Haskins era. More recently he has done a nice job building up Long Beach State as a regional power known for its lack of fear regarding its scheduling. Any of those four would be great hires, but maybe SC needs a younger coach ready to be a lifer in L.A. Kerry Keating? Eric Reveno?
Whomever the new coach is, priority number one needs to be recruiting the Los Angeles area. While UCLA had been striking out for a few years with its recruiting classes, USC was unable to take advantage. O’Neill had gotten commitments from five players for his 2013 recruiting class, with only one of those guys – Roschon Prince – from the LA area. Last year Brendyn Taylor was the lone local recruit. Two years ago, it was Byron Wesley and Alexis Moore, the latter of whom is no longer with the program. In 2010 it was Dedmon and Bryce Jones – again, the latter of whom is playing elsewhere these days. So, in four years in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds, O’Neill was able basically to land Dedmon and Wesley, two fine players, but not enough to compete in the Pac-12. Meanwhile, Colorado, for instance, scored Xavier Johnson out of USC’s back yard this past season. A year ago, the Buffs stole Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie out of the Southland. Likewise, Mountain West programs such as New Mexico, UNLV, and San Diego State have routinely mined the Southern California playgrounds for talent on the way to Top 25 teams. Given USC’s upgrades to its basketball facilities in recent years, there is no reason the Trojans should have to venture to Serbia for talent while the players in its own backyard go on to success elsewhere.
In the immediate future for USC, Cantu finds himself in a nice position to make a bit of a run. He’s got a deep and talented roster that is starting to play well and, minus O’Neill, they get a chance at a fresh start. Fontan is finally starting to regain some of the quickness that he lost when he tore his ACL two summers ago, basketball is starting to click for Dedmon, Eric Wise is getting comfortable as a veteran leader, and Terrell is beginning to occasionally understand the difference between good shots and bad shots. Is this a team that is going to reel off 10 straight wins and contend for a conference title? Not a chance. But they can beat some teams and, if things fall right, maybe they get a chance to continue their season beyond the Pac-12 Tournament.
As for the post-mortem on O’Neill, there were some embarrassing moments there, and a six-win season, regardless of the corresponding number of injuries, is never a good thing. But he stepped into a bad situation following the Tim Floyd era and actually took USC to an NCAA Tournament in 2011. Still — and I say this despite the fact that I actually have really liked dealing with O’Neill — can athletic directors around the country please not hire this guy as a head coach? Despite the Pac-12 Network commercial to the contrary, O’Neill is never going to be the warm and cuddly guy that boosters want to wrap their arms around. Throw in the fact that, despite his ability to coach the hell out of the defensive end of the court, his team’s offensive performances have been atrocious. As much as I would like to, I will never be able to unwatch some of the stuff I have seen this Trojan team do with the ball in their possession over the past three seasons: offensive in more ways than one. I’m sure O’Neill will land on his feet and be gainfully employed in the basketball profession just about as soon as he wants to be (although, the $1.5 million he will get as part of his contract buyout probably earns him as much time as he wants to relax on the beach), but as a fan of the art of offensive basketball, I’m looking forward to being able to watch USC basketball again without having to cower in quite as much pain.