The timing of Kevin O’Neill’s abrupt dismissal was unusual, yet in so many ways appropriate given how the University of Southern California athletics department handles business.
Fresh off a road drubbing of Utah—far and away the team’s best performance of the season—USC terminated its head coach in much the same quizzical fashion it relieved Henry Bibby of the job five games into his final season at the school. Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin, the overburdened caretaker of the only revenue sports program in town that truly matters, retains his position of gridiron destructor. Go figure.
Yet nothing, not the ill-timed pink slip or the one Pat Haden has so far withheld, can top the oddity of O’Neill’s presence in central Los Angeles in the first place. If the timing of his dismissal seems strange, the expectations of success upon his initial hiring should seem preposterous.
O’Neill’s plodding, defensive-oriented style was never meant for Southern Cal, where the average attention span for college hoops is shorter than the ex-coach’s fuse. You can be boring if you’re good and bad provided you’re entertaining. You can’t, however, be boring and bad at once, especially near the entertainment capital of the world. The Trojans, under O’Neill, were both. Hollywood material they were not.
USC was 7-10 this season under O’Neill and 16-games under .500 (45-61) during his three-and-a-half years at the school. Last year, the injury-ravaged Trojans finished 6-26 and won just one conference game. A crop of in-bound transfers eligible this season had brought renewed hope to the program, but O’Neill failed to fit any of the pieces together.
A man hired on the grounds of an erroneous myth that “defense wins championships,” O’Neill has overseen defenses consistently adept at limiting points. Of course, like Ben Howland, Bo Ryan and Jamie Dixon, his reputation as a defensive guru has been speciously enhanced by the slow pace at which his teams play.
Scoring points has been the big bugaboo in the City of Angels, not just at USC, but also 15 miles west in Westwood. During the four seasons O’Neill stalked the sidelines in L.A., the Trojans ranked last, third-to-last, last and second-to-last, respectively, in the Pac-12 in scoring average. That’s not fun or productive.