O'Neill tells USC to have 'special season'
The texts popped up on each player's phone a couple of hours after USC had beaten Arizona State 47-37 for its eighth straight win and a first place tie atop the Pacific-10 Conference.
"We have a 10:15 meeting in the morning."
It was an odd text to be getting from the assistant coaches on a Saturday night at 11:15 p.m. The players were celebrating the victory and their unlikely position at the head of a conference they were projected to finish ninth in during the preseason.
"It was kind of funny," said senior guard Dwight Lewis. "Everybody was kind of wondering what the meeting was about. Did anybody do something wrong or say anything crazy in the media? Nobody knew what it was about. We usually have Sunday off. We figured it must be important if they wanted all of us to come back that early on a Sunday morning."
No one on the team could have anticipated what would come next. After they had filed into the team meeting room inside of Galen Center at 10:15 a.m., USC head coach Kevin O'Neill walked to the front of the room and informed the team of the self-imposed sanctions on the basketball program, which included a postseason ban this year.
Even if USC extended its eight-game winning streak to 24 games and won the Pac-10, the Trojans' season would be over March 6. There would be no Pac-10 tournament. No NCAA tournament.
"He was telling us everything that was coming about and I was just trying to listen for the news that would affect this season and unfortunately I heard the news and it was definitely disappointing," said senior point guard Mike Gerrity. "I had this pit in my stomach."
O'Neill got the news from USC athletic director Mike Garrett shortly after the Trojans' win Saturday night and felt the same sort of pit in his stomach as he sat in his office. He knew what he had to tell his team in the morning and all he could think of was the looks on their faces after Saturday's win and what it would turn into when he broke the news they would not be playing in the postseason.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," said O'Neill, who has been coaching for 30 years. "You're talking to a guy who has been fired four or five times but telling our team, that was harder than ever getting fired. It was difficult for me to say and it was difficult for them to hear and I hope I never have to do that again. When you break young people's dreams and hearts, that's hard to do."
Just last week in the same meeting room, O'Neill stood before his team and told them that they had the potential to win a national championship and that they could beat any team in the country. As absurd as that may have sounded before the season, it didn't seem so outlandish after they had beaten then-No. 9 Tennessee by 22 points and then-No. 20 UNLV on Christmas Day to win the Diamond Head Classic title in Honolulu.
"Coach O'Neill had been preaching that we could win a national championship," said Gerrity. "He had that belief in us and he instilled that in all of us. When we stepped on the court it wasn't necessarily to win each game but to give us the best chance to win come March."
When the team arrived at the Galen Center on Monday for practice, the heartbreak of Sunday's news was already in their rearview mirror. It didn't take long for O'Neill to get on sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic to be more aggressive and for Gerrity to crack a joke and make the team laugh. There's nothing they can do about the postseason, but the new rallying cry for a team that has constantly had to overcome is to be the first team in school history to win the Pac-10 outright.
"If they approach this the right way, they'll remember this as being a special season," said O'Neill. "We want to have a special season. I told these guys that hopefully 10 years from now they'll look back and tell people that this group of guys that they played with that year kicked butt all the time. That's how we can have a special season."
As practice took place Garrett sat in the stands about 20 rows up from midcourt and refused to answer questions about the investigation or the self-imposed sanctions. He left it up to O'Neill and the players to handle the dirty work just as he left them to bear the brunt of the punishment for the actions of O.J. Mayo, Tim Floyd and others no longer associated with the basketball team.
"It's unfair," said junior forward Alex Stepheson. "It's unfortunate. There were only two people who were even here at the time O.J. was here, so most of us don't even know what's going on. It's an unfair situation, but there's nothing you can do."
Before O'Neill left the team on Sunday he told the players that life isn't fair but it was up to them to make the most of the situation even though they were essentially paying the price for a crime they didn't commit.
"I go out to dinner a lot," he said. "Sometimes somebody eats the dinner and somebody else pays the bill, and we're paying the bill right now."