Greg Hansen: O'Neill gets A+ in being life of party, not coaching

2013-01-16T00:00:00Z 2013-01-16T09:37:08Z Greg Hansen: O'Neill gets A+ in being life of party, not coachingGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If a college basketball coach is judged by his body of work, Kevin O'Neill will be judged by 15 1/2 college seasons in which his teams won 46.4 percent of their games, two of them in the NCAA tournament.

That'll get anybody fired.

Do you know whose Pac-12 career record was also .464? The obtuse Henry Bibby. That puts O'Neill's Monday firing into perspective. Both were fired at midseason by USC. Both had personality quirks that made people around them uneasy.

Bibby wouldn't say two words. O'Neill wouldn't shut up.

Both were employed by ex-Trojan athletic director Mike Garrett, whose hiring practices often made you ask: What is he thinking?

Somehow, O'Neill lasted 113 games at USC, which is longer than he was tolerated at Northwestern (86 games), Tennessee (83), Arizona (34) and by the NBA's Toronto Raptors (82).

When you are asked to leave that often, it may be wise to work on a new act.

But that's not KO.

At 55, he'll stubbornly go to his basketball grave insisting he's smarter than everyone else in the arena.

O'Neill's big sin as Arizona's interim basketball coach was failing to worship at the shrine of Lute Olson. He would tell stories about Lute, most of them exaggerated, most of them meant only to draw a laugh and not demean Olson.

O'Neill's real weakness wasn't that he partied too hard, sprinkled too many four-letter words into daily conversation or stubbornly insisted on man-to-man defense, but that he wanted people to think he was funny.

He loved to watch them laugh.

Some of his stories were mean-spirited and off target. Naturally, they found their way back to Olson, whose loyal soldiers, Josh Pastner, Matt Brase and Miles Simon, had to endure O'Neill's odd behavior and daily (R-rated) stand-up routine.

As the untenable 2007-08 season dragged on, O'Neill knew he would not be part of Olson's planned return. He ceased involving Simon and Pastner in daily game-planning and virtually ignored them in practice sessions.

He was born without the gene for tact.

O'Neill showed little or no respect to anyone in the greater Arizona basketball family, except those no longer on the scene, like Steve Kerr, who, in turn, mistakingly thought the KO of 2008 was the KO of 1988.

A few weeks before he coached his last game at Arizona, O'Neill left 'em laughing at his weekly media session. In his typical deadpan delivery, O'Neill spoke about getting fired.

"When you change jobs, you get rid of every T-shirt you have," he said to his amused audience.

"Every time I change jobs, especially when I get fired, I put all my the clothes from that job out in front of my lake house (in Chateaugay, N.Y.). I have all my prison guard friends come over. We have a bonfire, we drink whiskey and have a hell of a time.

"Seriously, I do that every time I change jobs."

O'Neill would look around the room, deadpan, and watch the laughter. I suspect he enjoyed that as much as any part of his job. He was terrific as a life-of-the-party guy and much less so as the head of Arizona's $24 million-a-year basketball operation.

When USC fired O'Neill, it sent a signal that KO's let-'er-rip approach is no longer appreciated. Unless you're cutting down some nets, you've got to be polite, politically correct, a role model in the community - and average more than 3,903 fans at your arena.

O'Neill's departure will not go down well with the sitting Pac-12 coaches. USC was one conference opponent of which you rarely worried getting beat in recruiting or on the court.

Now, after two decades of flawed hires, from Bibby and Charlie Parker to O'Neill and Tim Floyd, the Trojans seem likely to acquire someone who is apt to use the school's inherent recruiting advantages for better results.

USC is not a sleeping giant in college hoops, but it should be better than an also-ran. It's a football-centric school with limited appeal to the greater Los Angeles basketball community. It has less basketball tradition than even Oregon State and Utah, and has underperformed forever.

If nothing else, O'Neill provided athletic director Pat Haden with a template for what he doesn't want for 'SC's basketball program.

In Olson's book "Lute! The Seasons of My Life," he wrote, "Kevin was one of a kind. A very unique kind."

That was his sole mention of O'Neill in 309 pages. Nothing good, nothing bad. Unique.

Sort of like an old coach and some prison guards tossing USC gear into a bonfire. Talk about a laugh riot.

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