O'Neill apologetic, readies USC for VCU

LOS ANGELES -- Shortly before 6 p.m. PT on Saturday, University of Southern California basketball coach Kevin O'Neill retreated from his Galen Center office after a long day at work and decided to make the 2.5-mile jog back to his downtown Los Angeles penthouse.

Sometimes, when he's feeling particularly worn out or it's especially late at night, he calls his wife Roberta and has her come pick him up at the Galen Center. It's about a 10-minute drive, maybe a 25-minute jog.

On Saturday, he decided he needed the stress relief, his mind reeling from a tumultuous 48-hour period that included a verbal altercation with a University of Arizona booster at the team hotel for the Pac-10 tournament Thursday night and his subsequent suspension from the tourney the following afternoon; O'Neill missed his team's five-point semifinal loss to Arizona, which left the Trojans' status for Selection Sunday super-shaky.

It was right about then realized his life would never be the same again.

See, O'Neill's run down Flower Street -- he recounted in an interview Monday -- coincided with the end of the Arizona-Washington Pac-10 championship game, in which the third-seeded Huskies upset the Wildcats on an overtime buzzer-beater from Isaiah Thomas. Shell-shocked Arizona fans walking to their cars near the Staples Center afterward quickly realized that the man waiting at the intersection of Pico and Flower in the USC Trojans T-shirt and patented gray sweatpants was none other than O'Neill. And they responded with a lot more verbal abuse than O'Neill handed out to Arizona booster Paul Weitman in the lobby of the JW Marriott.

He estimates he heard from roughly 200 people on the jog back home. Some were USC fans just in the area, but most were Arizona supporters, in Wildcat packs. They let him hear it. O'Neill didn't hate it, but he took it to heart.

"I admit I screwed up," O'Neill says now. "I admit I made a mistake. I take full responsibility for that mistake. No one else is responsible in any way, just me.

"My job now is not to screw up again. And I realize that if I do screw up again it'll be a serious situation. Hopefully it's a learning situation for me and one I'll avoid in the future."

O'Neill and USC athletic director Pat Haden, the man who handed down the punishment, have talked many times since the initial incident, according to O'Neill, including the night of the incident. They talked frequently Friday, while Haden was making the decision to suspend him, and Saturday, too.

"I'm sure it was a distraction to the players," O'Neill said. "And I apologize to them and everybody else -- especially when they find out three hours before the game that their coach isn't going to be there.

"And, no matter what anybody says, if your head coach is there, it's a different story."

It was a different story, all right. O'Neill's description of his experience watching the USC-Arizona game from his home Friday night is a dramatic story -- including, to use his words, "gut-wrenching" and " heartbreaking." Oh, and "helpless," too.

O'Neill didn't even have a chance to tell his players he had been suspended. That task was Bob Cantu's to complete, as Cantu, the team's associate head coach, found out three hours before Friday's game he'd be in charge on the sidelines. Late that night, after the loss, O'Neill called an impromptu meeting with his players, where he apologized to them for his actions and gave them an important piece of information: "I did exactly what I told you not to do," he told them.

"At the end of the day, I felt like we knew that from him before he even said it," said junior guard Jio Fontan, who often serves as a liaison between O'Neill and the players as the team's starting point guard. "We knew he felt that the decisions he made were wrong.

"Whatever the case may be, we're just happy to have him on board again."

O'Neill is more than on board, really. He's the heart and soul of a Trojans team that hopes to make a serious run in the NCAA tournament. His team is, in many ways, much like himself -- very representative of his long-standing commitment to defense above all else on the basketball court and a willingness to work hard.

"These guys can handle adversity," O'Neill says. "They're resilient, they're tough, they're hard-nosed, and, as I told them [on Friday night] when I met with them, they've become a team of real men and bonded together."

O'Neill is proud of that, you can tell. He freely admits he didn't initially expect this team to be able to reach the success it has reached. And he's proud that his players will get a chance to prove how good they are this week in the tourney -- and, maybe above all, proud he gets to coach them, too.

Said senior guard Donte Smith, a pet project of O'Neill's who has developed into a legitimate perimeter threat this season, of being able to play another meaningful game after the suspension: "It means a lot to him. It means a lot to us, too."

It's clear O'Neill has learned from his mistake the old-fashioned way: by suffering, long and hard. And he's passed that lesson on to his players as they ready to face what will assuredly be an adversity-driven drive in the NCAA tournament -- if they start winning and get on a run, of course. It starts Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT in Dayton, Ohio, against Virginia Commonwealth.

"The bottom line with our guys is that they understand that I made a mistake," O'Neill says. "They've all made mistakes -- some maybe not to the level of mine, but some close. That's the way things go with teams. But, as a group, we understand -- we just pick up our shoes and we move on and we do the best we can in future.

"Hopefully this group will be able to play for a lot more games."

Pedro Moura is co-author of the USC blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.