- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- I was outside, not inside, the JW Marriott hotel when USC coach Kevin O'Neill left what now appears to be one of the biggest mistakes of his life Thursday night around 7.
His wife Roberta was leading him by the arm, walking briskly a couple of steps ahead. They live in an apartment a few blocks away, so I didn't think much of it.
But within a few hours, the world would know what she was leading him away from.
The O'Neill's were involved in a verbal altercation with Arizona booster Paul Weitman -- a man O'Neill has known for more than two decades -- in the lobby of the hotel.
While O'Neill denies there was a fight, he acknowledged the altercation grew heated, comparing it to an argument between a baseball manager and an umpire.
He knew immediately that he'd done something wrong.
He learned Friday afternoon just how steep the consequences would be.
"I really feel terrible that it happened," he said Friday evening, as he watched USC's 67-62 loss to Arizona from his apartment, with his wife.
It was the first game, practice, shoot-around or meeting he has ever missed as a coach. But he asked for no sympathy after USC athletic director Pat Haden suspended him for the rest of the Pac-10 tournament -- USC lost to Arizona in the semifinals Friday night, 67-62.
"I feel like I've let my team down, which is the worst feeling you can have is a coach," he said.
Perhaps even worse, he has put his wife in the middle of a contentious crossfire.
"It's hard to see anybody you love being criticized," he said. "It's unfortunate that her name is even involved at all. We do everything together. We go everywhere together. She's very supportive of everything I do and our team and our players."
We'll never really know exactly what happened in the lobby of the JW Marriott on Thursday night.
There already have been numerous versions of the story, some more salacious than others.
But the one thing anyone who talks to O'Neill right now can say with certainty is how much he loves his wife, and how awful he feels that he involved her in a situation such as this.
I'll always remember the story he told at his introductory news conference two summers ago.
He'd met Roberta, who is 20 years his junior, at a restaurant in Toronto late at night after a game. He was an assistant with the Toronto Raptors at the time. She was helping out a friend who owned the restaurant.
"I kept ordering stuff and they didn't have it," O'Neill said then. "And I said, 'What kind of restaurant is this? What kind of restaurant doesn't have food in it?' "
Roberta was told a customer was unhappy with the service, so she sent over a bottle of wine to his table to help make amends.
"When I first met him, I thought he was kind of a jerk," she said then. "But he's really a charming guy if you get a chance to sit down and talk with him."
O'Neill married her three years after they met and has spent the past five years of marriage trying to explain how he was able to land such a good catch.
She travels with him often on the road, bakes treats for his teams and waits up for him after night games.
"I know I'm very fortunate to have who I have," he said simply.
What's not clear is how much O'Neill will have left after this incident.
USC was steaming toward an NCAA tournament berth before Friday's loss to Arizona. Now the Trojans are decidedly on the bubble.
O'Neill said he was optimistic his team would make the tournament, and that he would get to coach them if they made it. But there are no guarantees about any of that right now.
"I feel good about the job we've done and I feel great about the way the players have responded," he said. "They've been special to coach these past two years, through all the adversity [of NCAA sanctions].
"They deserve for me to do a better job than get suspended from a game."
I was outside, not inside, as Kevin O'Neill walked away from one of the biggest regrets of his life. So I don't feel right in saying what USC should do with him going forward. Too much is still unclear.
But I know when a man is genuinely repentant for hurting the people he loves.
Whatever his beef with Weitman was, it wasn't worth it.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
7dAndy Katz and David Purdum
6dESPN The Magazine