Kevin O'Neill's firing on Monday was not really a surprise. He had been told that he needed to make the NCAA tournament in order to see his expiring contract renewed, and the team's 7-10 record on the heels of last year's 6-26 finish made it clear that wasn't happening. USC's ineptitude in 2011-12 -- when it had six players sitting out by the end of the season -- carried over, even with an influx of new talent. Perhaps O'Neill, who bought a house two hours away from USC in Coronado last year, saw the writing on the wall.
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O'Neill has his detractors, to be sure. In regard to his ability to land jobs in the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and NBA over the course of his long career, despite less than spectacular results at any of his previous stops, one head coach described O'Neill to me as “basketball's best con man.”
One of his former players took it a step further, telling me O'Neill has a “black heart ... because he speaks in ways that are pure evil, I hated every moment of our time together.” O'Neill will ride players, imply they're soft, and bench them for not doing it his way. There is a point where coaches go from tough love to needlessly harsh and disrespectful. O'Neill more than flirted with that line -- he flat-out crossed it. He uses all the vulgarities of the late Rick Majerus, only O'Neill is seen as more mean than funny.
Away from the court, O'Neill has had his questionable moments as well.
He was lucky to keep his job at USC after a very loud and allegedly intoxicated run-in with an Arizona booster at the Pac-12 tournament a couple of years ago.
One source told me about an incident in which he turned the desk over on Tennessee AD Doug Dickey, when the school wouldn't clear Isiah Victor to play.
Rumors about his penchant for hotel room tirades were given weight thanks to a notorious incident while O'Neill was coach of the NBA Raptors, when he admitted to smashing a lamp. A source told me about a similar bit of hotel destruction while O'Neill was the coach at Marquette, which led to a damage estimate in the thousands.
But more important than his reputation and his previous run-ins, what got O'Neill fired was that USC was horrible in a bad Pac-12 last year and didn't show enough signs of progress. The fact that his teams always play at a snail's pace wasn't helping matters.
O'Neill has many who like him. KO has a bright basketball mind and can be an engaging storyteller. Though he's thought of as paranoid and scheming by some, those same folks say he's completely aware of others' perception and uses it to fuel him. Still, when it goes bad for O'Neill, it goes really bad and his team quits on him. Marquette, Tennessee and USC were all really good jobs at the time he took them and so, too, was his NBA gig. I'm not sure what is more remarkable, that KO kept getting the jobs or that he could never win big at any of those places.
Now that O'Neill is gone, the Trojans need to find someone who can do three things: win games, keep the right players home and fill the Galen Center. The first two will be easier than the third.
USC remains a very good job. Though AD Pat Haden isn't viewed as a "basketball guy," most consider him a straight shooter who isn't hard to work for. Haden was more than fair with O'Neill, and rightly expected more at a school with tons of resources, a facility in the Galen Center that is superior to Pauley Pavilion in everything but championship banners, and unique amenities in attracting staff (the school gives assistant coaches interest-free loans so they can afford to pay for housing in ridiculously expensive Southern California).
That said, USC has had NCAA investigations stilt its progress on multiple occasions, and the fan base remains ambivalent about basketball at what has been a quintessential "football school." USC reminds me a little of Texas A&M before Billy Gillispie was hired, a sleeping giant. Not that you will fill the arena regularly or be a perennial top-five program, but a top-30 program that has a good rivalry with UCLA and can compete in a down Pac-12? Sure. But to get there, they can not make another mistake like O'Neill.
The rumor mill says USC wants Pitt coach and SoCal native Jamie Dixon, though no one is sure whether Dixon would want them. Dixon has become established at Pittsburgh since taking over for Ben Howland in 2003, and Pitt is going to the ACC, the premier league in the country most years. It would be a coup for USC to land Dixon. Others who may want the job are Randy Bennett from Saint Mary's, Josh Pastner from Memphis, Dan Monson from Long Beach State and Mike Hopkins, the head coach-to-be at Syracuse. One outside name I have heard is former Cavs/Lakers head coach Mike Brown. Brown's son, Elijah, is quickly becoming a Pac 12-level player and the school may have an interest in bringing both coach and player to the school.
Whoever ends up surfacing at USC will have the tall task of building a foundation at a school that has gotten past the Sweet 16 just once since 1954. That was a challenge Kevin O'Neill ultimately found too difficult to tackle.