USC Errs In Suspending Kevin O’Neill


Friday afternoon, USC suspended head basketball coach Kevin O’Neill for an altercation involving himself, his wife, and an Arizona booster. Assistant coach Bob Cantu, who had never been the head man for a collegiate game, assumed the duties. Cantu did an admirable job as the Trojans fell to the No. 15 Arizona 67-62, and the players suggested after the game that things would not have been different if O’Neill had been pacing the sidelines.

While the reports differ on what happened, it is clear that there was a verbal altercation between O’Neill and an Arizona booster who he had known for a long time. To begin with, there was a lot of bad blood between the two because the booster was allegedly responsible for running O’Neill out of town after his one year as an interim in Arizona. The Arizona fan site reports that O’Neill told the booster that USC was going to beat the hell out of the Wildcats Friday night. Can you fault O’Neill for being passionate about his squad? USC has a coach that is willing to stand behind his program and be confident in their ability and the athletic director decides that it is overzealous. Tim Floyd took USC to three NCAA tournaments before he left Los Angeles. After leaving, he admitted that he did not feel there was adequate support from AD Mike Garrett. Kevin O’Neill took the high road and said he hopes to coach the Trojans in the future, but it is hard to understand why anyone would want to take this job when the athletic director is so afraid of bad perception that he will act illogically.

To me, the worst part of the suspension is that O’Neill allegedly did not even start the incident. According to the Arizona fan site, O’Neill’s wife started things off when she threw a punch at the Arizona booster. Yahoo! reports that the booster had a scratch on his face, likely the product of Mrs. O’Neill’s ring. If true, it would be outrageous for USC to expect O’Neill to stand there and not say anything while his wife is in the middle of an altercation.

Any way you slice it, Kevin O’Neill did not break any NCAA rules or laws. In effect, he exchanged words after a few drinks with a guy he didn’t like. The man was in a hotel coming out of the elevator when he ran into the booster. I could understand outrage if he had been seeking the booster out, but it was a chance incident and I refuse to believe the Arizona fan was completely innocent.

In essence, Pat Haden’s main goal was to project a clean image of the program. He wanted to show he wasn’t going to tolerate any sort of transgression. But why? Haden is being too cautious about the national perception of the athletic department. Technically, the happenings at Heritage Hall are irrelevant to USC’s appeal to the NCAA. The only way USC can win is if they prove procedural errors or egregious uses of power in the case. Additionally, this incident has nothing to do with the NCAA. USC should not even take that in to consideration when making their decision.

There are some who will applaud Haden for putting forth integrity above winning. However, I am not sure what sort of integrity Haden is protecting. Kevin O’Neill got into an argument. I didn’t see the Rider athletic director get up in arms when his coach exchanged heated words with the USC student section during a game. O’Neill apologized and expressed remorse for his actions. People are human, and Haden can’t expect his coaches to be sitting at home after games cleaning their tooth brushes and shining their shoes. Sure, O’Neill probably overdid it with the drinks (wouldn’t you drink too if your home stadium was so empty all the time?) He exchanged heated words with someone. If O’Neill had received a DUI, I would understand the suspension. However, he says he walked away from the incident as soon as he saw security coming over and responsibly caught a cab home.

By suspending O’Neill, USC also drew even more attention to the incident. If they had just reprimanded him for his actions privately, it is unlikely the incident would have been continuously running on the ESPN ticker. Suspensions certainly make for better headlines than slaps on the wrist. Pat Haden hoped to put a positive spin on the incident by being proactive, but he just brought more attention to the incident. I am not trying to say that what O’Neill did was justified. He had a lapse in judgement, aided by alcohol, but his actions did not deserve a suspension.

Kevin O’Neill took a risk by taking the USC job. It was such an undesirable job because the new coach would not get the chance to have a 2010 recruiting class and the O.J. Mayo cloud was hanging over the program. Yet, he arrived at Galen and has given his full effort the past two seasons. He has roamed the bench with fire and passion, and it boiled over in a lapse of judgement Thursday night. However, the punishment was an overreaction and it shows that Haden is in his first year as an athletic director. Putting forth a good image is nice, but it is more important to stand up for your coaches instead of hanging them out to dry.