Kevin O’Neill and Southern Cal Were a Marriage Meant for Divorce

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Sure, O’Neill’s tenure at USC had its bright moment(s). He guided a 19-win Trojans team to the Big Dance in 2011—a controversial, largely undeserving invitee, to be fair—before losing in one of two inaugural “first round” (call them play-in) games. He even spearheaded the Trojans to a winning season in year one, this despite playing one recruiting class down because of the NCAA sanctions lodged in the wake of the Tim Floyd fallout. By no mistake, though, did the payoff on his two crowning moments justify the gamble Mike Garrett took by hiring him in 2009.

O’Neill’s career college coaching arc had begun to bend downward ever since he removed Marquette from life support in the early 90s. Before he landed on his feet in the NBA as a vagabond assistant and one-time head coach, O’Neill had his struggles at Tennessee, where his teams finished with losing records in all three seasons, and Northwestern, which sent away O’Neill with an 0-16 league record as a parting gift.

Garrett hired O’Neill for his one-year masterstroke at Arizona, where he led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament serving as an interim head coach in lieu of Lute Olsen. But O’Neill never had the same talent in L.A. as he did that year in Tucson, and so Garrett’s calculated risk never begot its intended goals.

O’Neill was a shrewd tactician unfairly asked to play ringleader in the Southern Cal circus. A committed coaching mind without the bells and whistles, he was mislabeled as a figurehead capable of guiding SC’s dog and pony show to a renaissance on the hardwood.

A perpetrator of thinly veiled profanity and brute honesty, O’Neill was never the type to embrace the used car sales business of recruiting. He was meant, instead, for a low-profile spot somewhere on an NBA bench, preferably in an assistant capacity wherein he flourished for almost a decade.

Kevin O’Neill betrayed the comfort of his niche as an assistant in pursuit of a glamorous, but far-fetched head-coaching position. As he slinks off into the obscurity of unemployment, for now a single man again, the former Trojan can ruminate on a marriage that, like his previous head coaching gigs, was destined for divorce.

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