Kevin O'Neill proving he's 'no Lute Olson' ... and that's OK
LOS ANGELES -- As the Arizona basketball team lumbered off the team bus and into the Galen Center for a Thursday night game against USC in late January, a throng of USC students hurled insults at the Wildcats from above.
They threw all sorts of unimaginative barbs at the Arizona players. But they saved what they thought would be the worst insult for Arizona interim coach Kevin O'Neill.
"You're no Lute Olson," they screamed at O'Neill.
The insult was supposed to sting, to remind O'Neill that he lacks the Hall of Fame credentials of the man he has replaced this season. But O'Neill knows he's no Lute Olson. He doesn't remotely resemble the silver-haired, Cary Grant-like leading man who has been at Arizona for the past 24 seasons. KO, as he is referred to by his players, doesn't pretend to be Coach O, who has 589 career wins and one national championship in his impressive career résumé.
And that's OK. Because in the two months since the 73-year-old Olson abruptly announced he was taking a leave of absence for the season, O'Neill has so firmly put his own stamp on this program that it is hard to imagine Olson coming back and taking over again like he said he would.
"It's 100 percent [O'Neill's] way, his program and he's doing a good job," said sophomore Chase Budinger two days later as the team bus drove toward the game-day shootaround at UCLA.
Following a legend
The transition hasn't been easy. You try taking over a program used to winning and replacing a Hall of Fame coach in the meantime.
"Everybody says it's best to be the second guy following a legend," O'Neill said. "I'll find out."
I don't know if Kevin O'Neill is an assistant coach per se. He's a head coach at the college level. It's going to be a hard transition if Coach O does come back.
--Arizona senior Jawann McClellan
But so far, O'Neill hasn't stepped into his new interim role with any trepidation. If he's going to replace Olson completely whenever the longtime coach officially retires, O'Neill will do it his way.
"I don't know if Kevin O'Neill is an assistant coach per se," said senior Jawann McClellan. "He's a head coach at the college level. It's going to be a hard transition if Coach O does come back."
Olson does communicate with the players frequently, either in passing at the McKale Center while he works out or on the phone. He talks to assistants Miles Simon and Josh Pastner, too.
But he has essentially left O'Neill and his old job alone. The two converse about once a week.
Olson made the first announcement that he was taking a leave of absence on Nov. 4. About one month later, he made a second announcement that he wouldn't come back this season.
"We were in a short-term thing where Lute would be back tomorrow or the next day, and then we lost the Virginia game at home [on Nov. 17]," O'Neill said.
That's when O'Neill made a conscious decision that he had to coach as if Olson wasn't coming back.
During that interim, Olson made cameos at practice. He worked out at the McKale Center. He occasionally saw the players. No one knew what was going to happen.
"It was a very confusing time," Budinger said. "We didn't know if it was coach O's way or Coach O'Neill's way. It was hard for us to practice and have two voices coming at us."
"No disrespect to Coach O, but we needed for him to go and take care of his issue and let KO put his mark on the team," McClellan said.
Making his mark
Two months later, there is no question that O'Neill has made his mark on this team. Case in point: the UCLA game on Feb. 2.
Arizona was down 20 at the half. The Bruins were embarrassing Arizona.
When O'Neill met his assistants in the hallway underneath the stands at Pauley Pavilion, he turned to them and said, "This isn't our basketball team."
The anger was still permeating for the next few minutes as O'Neill stormed into the locker room. He blew through the door as the entire team hung their heads, lifting them up to look blankly at O'Neill.
O'Neill turned to a free-standing grease board, kicked it and broke it apart into four pieces as a few managers struggled to no avail to put it back together.
He then rattled off stream of consciousness statements, his voice rising with each one:
"Remember what name is on the front of your jersey."
"Maybe I was too soft in practice. It's my fault. These guys are good, but they're not the San Antonio Spurs. I hope someone in here is as mad as I am and was as embarrassed as I was."
After he blew out his anger, O'Neill collected himself and started to break down Arizona's game plan for the second half. He told the players they had to cut the lead to 10 points at the 10-minute mark to have a chance.
Instead, Arizona started the second half as lethargic as the first and watched the lead balloon to 32 points with six minutes left. UCLA eventually won by 22.
But instead of being angry as the team walked into the postgame locker room, O'Neill was calm. He knew this was no time ot beat the players down any more, that the beating they took on the court was enough for the night. He made sure the players knew that they should say to the media that they were out-coached, out-played, out-hustled.
He also reinforced the positive to his team.
"We'll have our day," he told the team. "For two or three years, the knock on Arizona was that we're soft. Until today, we weren't. We softened up. We have to move on, learn from it and move. 4:30 p.m. practice Monday."
The on-court differences between the two coaches are clear: O'Neill likes to run plays -- a lot of them -- and plays only man-to-man. Olson would run a lot of motion offense and some zone defense.
"[O'Neill] likes to grind teams out," Budinger said.
It was a very confusing time. We didn't know if it was coach O's way or Coach O'Neill's way. It was hard for us to practice and have two voices coming at us.
--Arizona sophomore Chase Budinger
Discipline is another matter. Budinger said O'Neill instituted discipline as soon as he arrived in the summer. If someone was late to a workout or slacked during it, then he would be running. If a player was late for a class or a study hall in the fall, then he would be running, usually between 3 and 4:30 in the morning.
It took just two months, but the program is as much about O'Neill's personality as it once was about Olson's.
O'Neill is in control, offering levity at times, demanding discipline and accountability whenever they step on the court for practice or a game.
"I've got two rules: Don't be late and don't be a jerk," O'Neill said as the team bus fought L.A. traffic en route to USC for a game-day shootaround.
O'Neill has always been quite a character in college basketball. He took his intense style wherever he went, from Arizona where he was an assistant from 1986-89 before going to Marquette, Tennessee and then Northwestern before going to the NBA for six years.
"I'm way more mellow," said O'Neill. "When I was in college the first time, I don't mind admitting it, I was plain stupid some times."
"He's pretty self-assured and self-confident now," said his wife, Roberta, who traveled with O'Neill's 20-year-old son Sean and the team in the Los Angeles road swing.
"He doesn't take things so seriously. He doesn't," Sean O'Neill said on the bus following the USC win. "He's matured a little bit."
"I'm at a good place, not just in coaching, but where I am as a person," Kevin O'Neill said. "I used to be wilder than wild. I'm sure you've heard that. I still love to have a great time and don't get cheated. But I'm happy what I'm doing personally."
Even though Arizona has officially named O'Neill to be Olson's successor whenever the Hall of Famer retires, O'Neill emphasizes that he didn't come to Arizona to be the head coach. His wife, son and O'Neill are adamant that O'Neill came to Arizona as an assistant coach only for a brief stint before heading back to the NBA. He was here to toughen up the squad, to give them more of a defensive look.
Defense has been O'Neill's forte. On Jan. 31, the Wildcats put forth a strong defensive effort against USC, leading the Trojans 34-31 at the half.
But it wasn't enough. When O'Neill walks into the locker room, he immediately yells at the players to get into USC in the first five minutes.
Arizona does just as O'Neill asks, and after the 80-69 win, O'Neill goes right into the locker room and tells the team, "Let's get UCLA. If we beat them, we're one game behind and we can control our destiny."
The long-term destiny is unknown. Both Budinger and McClellan expressed doubt as to how Olson and O'Neill would mesh when Olson returns next season, which he said he would do.
Arizona has hit a rough patch in the season. The Wildcats got pummeled at UCLA. A few days later, O'Neill found out sophomore guard Nic Wise needed surgery to repair ligament damage. And on Sunday, they lost to in-state rival Arizona State, completing the Sun Devils' regular-season sweep of the Cats.
Even though Arizona is 15-8 and 5-5 in the Pac-10, O'Neill said that once the Wildcats are healthy, they can win games in the NCAA Tournament. He's not assuming a bid, but he is hopeful a selection will come and that Arizona will be a factor next month.
Beyond this season, the expectations are for O'Neill -- whenever the program is officially his -- to keep Arizona at the elite status it has reached under Olson.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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