USC Right to Give Kevin O’Neill More Time


After athletic director Pat Haden suspended men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill following an altercation with an Arizona booster, speculation swirled that the second year coach would be fired. Despite the rumors, Haden reinstated O’Neill for the NCAA Tournament and then announced the fiery coach would be returning for next season. The punishment Haden levied on O’Neill was certainly questionable; however, his decision to let O’Neill have another year is the right one.

When O’Neill took the USC job, it was a very unattractive position. The NCAA investigation was nearing a close, and there was a cloud hanging over the program. On top of that, all of Tim Floyd’s recruits had decided to leave and the new coach would be left without a recruiting class. As a result, there would be an incredible lack of depth. In O’Neill’s first two seasons, USC has gone 16-14 and 19-15. Additionally, the Trojans improved in conference from year 1 (8-10, 5th place) to year 2 (10-8, t-4th). USC has gotten better from year 1 to year 2, and there is a potential to be in the upper tier of the conference with Maurice Jones, Jio Fontan, Nikola Vucevic, transfers Aaron Fuller and Dewayne Dedmon, and recruit Byron Wesley. With that roster, it is only fair to give O’Neill the chance to win in his third year when he didn’t inherit much in the beginning.

There is a sizeable contingent of USC fans that aren’t thrilled with O’Neill. Admittedly, his teams have been somewhat inconsistent. They can hang with anybody in the country (see: Kansas in Lawrence), but they can also lose to anybody (see: Bradley, Rider, TCU, Oregon State). USC has played sub-.500 on the road and zone defenses have been the bane of the Trojans existence.

Regardless of the shortcomings, O’Neill has succeeded in the most relevant category at USC: NCAA tournament appearances. In 2009-2010, USC was surging with transfer Mike Gerrity stepping in. The Trojans had built momentum early in league play, but then former athletic director Mike Garrett announced a one-year self-imposed postseason ban on the basketball program. Rather than complain about the difficult situation he had no part in creating, O’Neill took it in stride and continued coaching the Trojans to a hard fought end. In his second year, O’Neill finally had a recruiting class, and he brought in some quality players. USC got off to a rough start, but the Trojans saw there name in the bracket on selection Sunday. Yes, USC turned in a poor performance in the tournament, but the fact that O’Neill was able to steer the team there just one year after a postseason ban is quite impressive. The Trojans have only been to two Final Fours in school history and were just 11-17 in tournament play entering the 2010-2011 season. To measure success is to count NCAA Tournament appearances, and O’Neill reached the benchmark in the first year it was possible. Would it be wise to turn in a better performance next year in the tournament? Yes. But the success he has had so far warrants giving him more time to see if he can improve.

When considering USC, it is important to keep it in perspective. The USC job is not one of the top ones in college basketball. Neither the tradition nor the passion are quite there. The Galen Center rarely fills up to at least 75%, and the Trojans recorded just one sellout in 2010-2011. Granted, recruiting shouldn’t be overwhelming given the location and the conference, but there are certainly much more attractive jobs out there. Some people have advocated for a change on the bench, but there just aren’t any names out there that are viable that surpass Kevin O’Neill.

Jamie Dixon at Pitt? Not a chance. Dixon gets to coach in a premiere conference at a school where basketball is big.

Bruce Pearl? He got fired for lying to the NCAA. Pat Haden, who suspended Kevin O’Neill for an altercation that was within the law and NCAA rules, would not want to touch the radioactive material that is Pearl.

Only one name seems plausible. Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s. Bennett, who coaches in the WCC, seems fed up with coaching in a mid-major conference after getting snubbed by the selection committee two of the last three years and would likely leave Moraga for the right offer. However, there are plenty of examples of mid-major coaches who flame out when they step on to power-conference programs. Bennett may be a good coach, but there aren’t a ton of people clamoring for him and it would be wise to stick with what you know and continuity and O’Neill than make a switch with serious risk.

Year 3 will be an important one for O’Neill. He needs to guide USC back to the tournament if he hopes to keep his job. Athletic director Pat Haden didn’t hire him, and the man in charge may want to install his own guy soon. However, Haden won’t be able to if O’Neill builds on his success from year 2. Whether next season turns out to be a bust or not, Haden made the right move in letting the ship continue on its course. As of right now, it appears headed in the right direction.