O'Neill's dramatic life overshadows coaching skills

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Kevin O'Neill should have his own reality show.

Seriously.

We'll call it "K.O.'d."

"It would be better than the Kardashian's," said new Detroit Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, who worked for O'Neill at Tennessee years ago. "Maybe not as nice to look at, but better."

It all starts with the disheveled summer look, which makes him enough of a dead ringer to draw comparisons to actor and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David.

Many of Kevin O'Neill's peers say he's not afraid to say what he believes, and he can also coach. (Getty Images)  
Many of Kevin O'Neill's peers say he's not afraid to say what he believes, and he can also coach. (Getty Images)  
"I hear that all the time," O'Neill said.

There was the admittance a few years back, while he was the interim head coach at Arizona, that he didn't utter a single word during games all season to then-assistants Josh Pastner and Miles Simon.

Or the story that circulated last March during the Pac-10 tournament, when his wife got into an argument with Lute Olson's best friend in a hotel lobby and K.O. was suspended for the league tournament.

"I was embarrassed not being able to help my team win," O'Neill said. "It was the first time in 32 years of coaching I wasn't able to be there for my team. That was the toughest part."

How about the honesty to go on the record last week and say he won't recruit many of the elite high school players, the ones who feel as though they are one-and-done before going to the NBA when they aren't even good enough to play in the league at all?

"I don't recruit those kind of kids," O'Neill told Yahoo! Sports.

The latest K.O. story is nearly getting fined for jaywalking last week while attending the final event of the July recruiting period in Los Angeles. Coaching lore had O'Neill getting hit with a $200 ticket.

"I was walking across the street and all the sudden this motorcycle cop rushes up on me," O'Neill recalled. "He's yelling at me and I had no idea what it was about."

O'Neill wound up with a warning.

"It's always something like that," O'Neill admitted of his entertaining life. "But that's honestly not the intention."

O'Neill is a basketball lifer, a guy who doesn't fret about appearance (he was wearing a "Chiefs Pub" T-shirt and a New York Jets hat on the recruiting trail one day last month) and a lightning-rod due to his forthright personality.

"Sometimes I think what gets overlooked, because he is so funny and so personable, is how good a coach he is,” said NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy, who hired O'Neill when he was the head coach of the Knicks.

"He's not just a good coach," Van Gundy added. "He's one of the best coaches at any level in the world."

Van Gundy's first experience with O'Neill came back at a coaching clinic while an assistant at Providence. He walked into the room and saw K.O. going jaw-to-jaw with then-Purdue assistant Kevin Stallings.

"They were arguing about some recruit," Van Gundy said. "I didn't know it was real and had never seen anything like that. But the first thing I noticed was his intensity and passion."

I've had my issues with K.O. in the past. I'm certain I'm not alone, either. He can be abrasive. There are plenty of players who can't stand playing for him and coaches who didn't enjoy working with him. Just ask any of the former Arizona guys he coached -- Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger to name a couple.

"No comment," was all Bayless would tell me a few years back when asked about K.O.

Budinger once told me he got yelled at when he cheered for a teammate following a dunk.

But there's something to be said for a guy, in an industry loaded with coaches who love to spin everything, who doesn't believe in B.S.

"What you see is what you get with K.O.," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "He says what he feels."

"He's not afraid to say what he believes," added Frank. "He's an extremely bright guy, but he puts himself out there. A lot of guys are afraid of the ramifications. Not Kevin."

"That's the way I am with everyone," O'Neill added. "I respect you, but it doesn't mean I always agree with you."

O'Neill should be the head coach at Arizona right now instead of Sean Miller, but the entire situation in Tucson became a train wreck and Olson's first order of business when he returned from a medical leave of absence was to jettison K.O.

Then the players didn't shy away from voicing their opinion on O'Neill.

"It wasn't their fault," O’Neill said of guys like Bayless and Budinger. "That was a terrible situation. Extremely difficult for those players."

O'Neill went back to the NBA for one season after he was forced out of Tucson. However, it didn't work out with the Memphis Grizzlies and K.O. was back in the market for a new job.

USC needed someone to clean up its program after the O.J. Mayo fiasco and there weren't a ton of proven coaches pounding down the door for the job. However, O'Neill didn't flinch -- even with the NCAA sanctions on the horizon.

In the middle of his first season, the school announced a postseason ban. This past season, his second at the Galen Center, O'Neill led the Trojans to the NCAA tournament -- no easy task with the roster he inherited.

"He's an outstanding coach," Frank said of his former boss. "He knows how to get guys to play hard and knows his own strengths and weaknesses."

The critics will, however, point to his 206-209 overall record at five different college stops: Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern, Arizona and now USC. Those close to him in the business will point to his ability to get the most of his talent.

"Honestly, the only thing that has prevented him [from more success] has been self-inflicted wounds," Van Gundy said. "Because I've never once watched a game and said he was out-coached."

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