Wildcat taskmaster

Well-traveled O'Neill shies away from limelight in return to UA
2007-11-11T00:00:00Z Wildcat taskmasterBy Bruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 11, 2007 12:00 am  • 

Every time the doors swing open to Kevin O'Neill's Mad House of basketball, the legend grows.

You may have heard the stories.

The UA assistant coach once wore a gorilla suit to meet a recruit at the airport. Sent a box of 1,000 letters to another. Played a significant role in the famed basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams". Served as the head coach for three Division I colleges and one NBA franchise, speaking his mind at every stop.

The stories continued this fall. Returning to UA at age 50 as more a defensive sage than a frenetic recruiter, O'Neill had the Wildcats up at sunrise to run. He barked at them to raise their defensive intensity, guiding them through afternoon workouts and, sometimes, evening walk-through sessions.

The difference is, now O'Neill is not telling any of these stories or even reacting to them. Everyone else is.

"There's no question that his influence has been felt already on the defensive end," UA coach Lute Olson said, and his players have loudly agreed.

But O'Neill won't acknowledge it, or anything else for that matter, declining comment for this story. He began speaking publicly only after he took over as interim head coach earlier this month after Olson left the team for personal reasons.

Maybe O'Neill doesn't want to fuel speculation that he will be permanently named Olson's successor in the future. Or maybe he simply prefers, for now, to toil quietly, fixing the lackadaisical defense that has plagued the Wildcats in recent seasons.

"His focus is to help Lute and the program as much as he can," says Suns GM and former Wildcat standout Steve Kerr. "He doesn't need to be in the limelight and he doesn't want to be."

O'Neill tried this approach successfully in the NBA, working without fanfare as an assistant for Detroit and Indiana teams headed by his good friend Rick Carlisle.

"He was the head coach of defense," Carlisle said. "Kevin's one of those unusual people who can take on that kind of responsibility as an assistant coach and have it still be the head coach's team. He refused to do interviews in Indiana and Detroit. He felt it was inappropriate. He just has a real respect for the position of head coaches."

It's a philosophy O'Neill developed after 12 years of mostly successful, yet sometimes controversial, years as a head coach himself.

Going out on his own

At age 32 in 1989, O'Neill left Olson's staff to become the head coach at Marquette. He led Marquette to the NCAA tournament twice, won two conference coach of the year awards and logged screen time in "Hoop Dreams" as the coach who landed one of the movie's subjects, William Gates.

He was successful enough that Tennessee lured him away in 1994 to rebuild a program that had just gone 5-22. Two years later, the Volunteers were in the NIT, with O'Neill loading up the Vols with top talent. His infamous box of letters helped land prized point guard Tony Harris of Memphis.

"I think when you recruit a guy for so long, you sit around and you say, 'You know, we've fired a lot of bullets here. We need a bomb,'" O'Neill told The Sporting News in 1996. O'Neill did land Harris but never coached him, because he left in the spring of 1997 to take a similar role at Northwestern.

According to the 2002 book "Tales of the Tennessee Vols", O'Neill had a dispute with athletic director Doug Dickey over the eligibility of Isiah Victor, who had been cleared by the NCAA but was still declared ineligible by Dickey.

The book said O'Neill was so upset that when the 1996-97 season finally ended, he "cleaned out his desk in the middle of the night, took plaques off the wall and left Tennessee — for Northwestern. This was the proverbial leap from the frying pan into the fire."

Sure enough, while O'Neill's successor at Tennessee, Jerry Green, turned that full cupboard of talent into four straight NCAA appearances, O'Neill was challenged considerably at hapless Northwestern.

"I left Tennessee with four straight Top 20 (recruiting classes)," O'Neill said in May. "That was probably a dumb move."

Tiring of the college game

O'Neill managed to upgrade Northwestern's talent level, again with tireless recruiting. He sent three letters a day to Chicago point guard star Jitim Young, often adding home movies where he'd say something like "Jitim, we need you." Then O'Neill, who took the Wildcats to only their third-ever postseason appearance in the 1999 NIT, signed Young and landed a top-20 recruiting class.

But O'Neill never coached Young, either. In 1999-2000, a young Northwestern team went winless in the Big Ten, and speculation grew that O'Neill would soon bolt to the NBA.

By September, he was gone, joining Jeff Van Gundy's New York Knicks staff as an assistant.

At the time, it was a good fit. O'Neill acknowledged in May that he had tired of recruiting then, obliged to tell NBA-obsessed teenagers about the league when he knew that many of them simply weren't good enough to get there.

The NBA didn't require that kind of selling. It was a purer basketball experience. So O'Neill jumped.

"I was just ready to go to the NBA, though the timing was unfortunate," O'Neill said in May. "I learned in every one of those situations, just like when I was at Marquette and when I was here (as an assistant). If anything I think I've become a smarter guy in terms of approach."

At times, he was simply too much for some players. O'Neill had five players quit or transfer on him at Northwestern. But in the NBA, Carlisle said, O'Neill never failed to get through to his NBA players.

"That tells you how effective he is," Carlisle said. "Kevin has the ability to be a real ally with the players and to gain their personal respect, but he never compromises the truth."

From dawn past dusk

The Pistons and Pacers knew they couldn't argue with a coach who's in the office well before anyone else and rarely stops working. Carlisle said O'Neill typically arrives at work around 4:30 a.m., puts in two hours, goes to a daily Mass, then returns to work. Later on, he'll work out, go to practice and work out again.

"This guy is on a different schedule than most human beings," Carlisle said.

All that energy paid off. In 2002-03, when the Pistons won 50 regular-season games for the second straight season under Carlisle and O'Neill, Detroit held opponents to 34.4 percent shooting from three-point territory and just 87.7 points per game.

"In my opinion, he's the best defensive coach in all of basketball," Carlisle said. "We had a record in Detroit that backs that up. He's not only hard-nosed but he has a creative side. He was instrumental in us being able to win some different playoff series with out-of-the-box approaches."

For O'Neill, it was the application of a lifetime philosophy. O'Neill's coach at Montreal's McGill University in the 1970s, Butch Staples, noticed early on the defensive mentality inside the guard nicknamed "Mad Dog."

"He was able to earn playing time through his defense more than offense," said Staples, now a tennis pro in Chicago. "He was a player who understands what playing defense can do. He lived it and embraced it."

It still applies today at McKale Center. Not only with the intensity in which O'Neill delivers that philosophy, but also in his thoroughness.

"You really have everything planned out for you," UA center Kirk Walters said. "It's a system that accounts for each person on the floor."

But the system, the energy and passion still couldn't help O'Neill's first NBA head coaching job last more than a year. O'Neill had the Toronto Raptors in position to make the 2003-04 playoffs at midseason before injuries helped facilitate a second-half plunge.

O'Neill broke a lamp at a Phoenix hotel once when informed that star Jalen Rose had broken his hand, held outspoken press conferences after games and publicly questioned his bosses at the end of the season. He said "drastic measures" needed to be taken if the organization really wanted to win.

The Raptors fired O'Neill the next day.

Climbing back on the horse

Carlisle brought O'Neill back to work under him for the Pacers the next year, and O'Neill has not lacked for work since. O'Neill stayed on until the Pacers dismissed him in 2006 — Indiana let Carlisle go last season — and was courted for two other college head coaching jobs last spring before accepting $375,000 per year to return to Olson's UA staff.

Now, especially if Arizona does well with O'Neill as a lead assistant, the only question is where and when he will be a head coach again.

O'Neill and Olson have both brushed off the possibility of O'Neill succeeding his 73-year-old mentor. "I don't have any long-term plans, to be honest with you," O'Neill said in May, and he had a point: O'Neill has held eight different jobs in the past 15 years.

But two of O'Neill's closest friends, Carlisle and former McGill teammate Larry Gibson, say O'Neill has a special relationship with UA, Olson and Tucson.

"I'd think he'd be absolutely interested in that," Gibson said of O'Neill succeeding Olson. "That's why he took the job. This represents another opportunity to work with his mentor."

For this season, though, that's all it is: O'Neill is back in Tucson, working with Olson, shoring up the defense and laying low.

It works for him, for now.

"The one thing I know for sure now is that his No. 1 focus is on doing everything he can to help Coach Olson have the best year they can have there," said Carlisle, who spent a week at O'Neill's home in early October. "A guy like Kevin is going to have opportunities in the NBA and college. There will be a lot of head coach jobs in college, if he wants to do that.

"But I know he has too much respect for Lute to be talking about that. He's only concerned about today's practice and getting back to work."

"In my opinion, he's the best defensive coach in all of basketball. We had a record in Detroit that backs that up. He's not only hard-nosed, but he has a creative side. He was instrumental in us being able to win some different playoff series with out-of-the-box approaches."

Rick Carlisle, Former Indiana Pacers coach

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pac-12 basketball standings

  Conference Overall
Arizona 0 0 0 0.000 12 1 0 0.923
Washington 0 0 0 0.000 11 0 0 1.000
California 0 0 0 0.000 10 2 0 0.833
Oregon 0 0 0 0.000 9 3 0 0.750
Utah 0 0 0 0.000 9 2 0 0.818
UCLA 0 0 0 0.000 8 4 0 0.667
Arizona State 0 0 0 0.000 8 5 0 0.615
Colorado 0 0 0 0.000 7 4 0 0.636
USC 0 0 0 0.000 7 4 0 0.636
Stanford 0 0 0 0.000 7 3 0 0.700
Oregon State 0 0 0 0.000 7 3 0 0.700
Washington State 0 0 0 0.000 5 6 0 0.455

AP Top 25

Pac-12 basketball schedule

Teams Date Time
Detroit at
Arizona State
12/23 54-93
Detroit at
Arizona State
12/23 54-93
George Washington at
12/23 53-50
Stanford at
12/23 74-71
South Dakota State at
12/23 66-80
Arizona at
12/23 67-71
Harvard at
Arizona State
12/28 12:00 pm
Cal State-Bakersfield at
12/28 1:30 pm
Cal-Davis at
Washington State
12/28 4:00 pm
12/28 4:30 pm
Stony Brook at
12/28 6:00 pm
Arkansas-Pine Bluff at
12/29 9:00 pm
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