Commentary

O'Neill has plenty of work to do at USC

Hits the road to keep the Trojans relevant for now and a contender in the future

Originally Published: July 30, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Mamadou Diarra apparently isn't coming back to USC, so at least Kevin O'Neill doesn't have to go to Mali anytime soon.

That's about the only place he hasn't been since taking over as the Trojans' new coach in late June.

O'Neill's first 40 days on the job at USC have been focused on two things: (1) Reassuring the players and their parents that he's here for the long term to ensure that the Trojans are a Pac-10 and national power, and (2) recruiting high-level, low-maintenance, trouble-free players for 2010 and beyond.

It's been a hectic start.

O'Neill said he has to make a Louisiana swing to see the families of Marcus Simmons and Leonard Washington in early August to finish the tour.

[+] EnlargeKevin O'Neill
AP Photo/Nick UtKevin O'Neill is coaching at his fifth major program in Division I.
In fact, during the four-day dead period in the middle of July, he even visited Nikola Vucevic while he was playing on the island of Rhodes in Greece, and then chatted it up with Vucevic's father in Montenegro.

Sound easy? Not really. Not when the hectic travel schedule is combined with having to deflect questions about the ongoing investigation into the alleged extra benefits provided to former Trojans star O.J. Mayo.

"Our whole thing here depends on any sanctions and how soon we get them,'' O'Neill said by phone as he continued his global trek. Just in the past couple weeks, he has traveled from Philadelphia to Cincinnati to Augusta, Ga., to Rhodes to Montenegro to Kansas City, Mo., to Los Angeles (twice) to Orlando, Fla. He heads back to L.A. later this week.

O'Neill said he has not been briefed on the investigation because "our university doesn't know what's going on. The only people that know what's going on are conducting the investigation.''

Southern California still doesn't have a notice of allegations from the NCAA, the precursor to any formal penalty phase. After notice is received, the school has 90 days to rebut the charges before a hearing is scheduled in front of the committee on infractions. USC isn't even at that stage yet, as both the Mayo and football Reggie Bush investigations have been combined. The most inflammatory charge in the Mayo case was the reason Floyd resigned. He was accused by a former member of Mayo's inner-circle, Louis Johnson, of paying Mayo's handler, Rodney Guillory, $1,000 on a Beverly Hills street corner in February 2007.

O'Neill said he has talked to Floyd once since he landed the job. He said Floyd focused on how good the people were at USC.

"Basically the way I'm dealing with it is that when I know I'll tell every recruit about it,'' O'Neill said of the investigation. "I'm taking a positive approach about it and moving forward."

Ironically, O'Neill spent last season as a defensive coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. Mayo was a star on the Grizzlies and finished runner-up to Chicago's Derrick Rose as the NBA's Rookie of the Year.

O'Neill said he and Mayo never discussed the USC investigation. He said Mayo was a great worker, providing no major issues for the staff.

"Kevin is the ideal coach for the situation at this particular point in time,'' said Tony Barone, the Grizzlies' director of player personnel. "Obviously, they're going through some tough times with the NCAA. But Kevin will not let that affect him coaching the team one iota.''

Barone said the Grizzlies were bad defensively when O'Neill arrived, but were respectable by the end of the season. He described the 52-year-old O'Neill as a classic grinder who relishes when his back is against the wall. He cited the places O'Neill has been, such as Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, as examples of going to jobs when the programs were struggling.

The jump from Tennessee to Northwestern was by O'Neill's admission the one mistake he made in his career advancement because he didn't stick it out with the players he recruited. O'Neill said bouncing around in the NBA (Indiana, Toronto, New York, Detroit and Memphis) is the norm unless your name is Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan or Gregg Popovich.

"He righted the ship at those places and he'll do the same at Southern Cal after they lost all their players,'' Barone said.

As expected, the Trojans have lost DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett. Not getting recruits Renardo Sidney (who left for Mississippi State), Noel Johnson (who left for Clemson), Derrick Williams and Lamont Jones (both heading to Arizona) was an expected fallout of Floyd's resignation.

But keeping the majority of the team was a must, and he's done that with Marcus Johnson coming back after he earned a fifth season of eligibility, senior shooter Dwight Lewis, North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson, defensive-minded wings Washington and Simmons, point guard Donte Smith and Pepperdine/Charlotte transfer Mike Gerrity, who will be eligible in mid-December.

For the Class of 2010, landing 6-foot-9 power forward Curtis Washington, out of Elizabethtown (Ky.) High, is a boost. And ensuring that Dwayne Polee, out of Westchester (Calif.) High, remains a recruitable walk-on while his father Dwayne Polee stays on as director of basketball operations is a must. (Strength coach Rudy Hackett won't return, but Tim Floyd's assistants -- Gib Arnold, Bob Cantu and Phil Johnson -- are all back.)

Securing 2011 point guard Gelaun Wheelwright, out of Centennial High (Calif.), was also a good get for restocking the Trojans. UCLA was recruiting Wheelwright, but didn't lock in a commitment. The word from a rival coach is that Wheelwright is a solid pickup for the Trojans, low-maintenance and a potential starting playmaker.

[+] EnlargeKevin O'Neill
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireLute Olson hired O'Neill to be the head-coach-in-waiting at Arizona. In the end, that moniker turned into just one season as interim coach.
Low-maintenance is something O'Neill could use a little bit more at this point.

His tenure in one season at Arizona was hardly smooth. But how could it have been after Lute Olson was gone and then back and then gone again, forcing O'Neill's interim season to be less than stable. He still got the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament despite injuries to Nic Wise and Jerryd Bayless.

Whether Bayless, Chase Budinger or former assistant Miles Simon liked O'Neill's demanding approach shouldn't matter at USC. O'Neill isn't going to change. He said he doesn't listen to the critics. And he's not at USC to fix his legacy -- he's there to build. He's a defensive-minded coach with players at USC that may not be his speed (in terms of being high-maintenance), but could fit his desire for toughness.

"When you're an interim [coach], it's a whole different kind of thing than being a full-time coach,'' O'Neill said. "I'm recruiting the kind of players that I want to coach and be around. We'll get guys at our place that will do what I want to do. It was a difficult situation for everyone at Arizona. But I have nothing bad to say about Arizona.''

O'Neill said he hasn't spoken to Olson since he landed the USC job. It was two years ago in May that Olson brought him in from the NBA to be a defensive coach for a perceived soft team.

O'Neill kept the Wildcats' streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances alive at 24. Russ Pennell extended it to 25 as an interim coach last season and now it's up to full-time coach Sean Miller, formerly of Xavier, to keep the string going. Former Arizona assistant Josh Pastner, now the head coach at Memphis, said that streak holds a lot of value to any player or coach that has come through the program the past quarter-century.

"Coach O'Neill helped me become a better coach and prepared me to be a head coach,'' said Pastner, who was O'Neill's top assistant during the interim season at Arizona before jettisoning himself to Memphis for a season to be John Calipari's assistant.

"Kevin at USC is a good fit. The group there is defensive-minded and they'll keep the games lower scoring,'' Pastner added. "It will be tough on the opponents. He'll shorten the game. There will be less possessions, and he'll grind it out.''

O'Neill has been grinding it out for awhile now. He can be a lightning rod. No question. He has his close-knit friends in coaching who understand his quirks, but he also has plenty of detractors, too.

But one thing that no one seems to doubt is that his passion for the game and for working hard hasn't dimmed one bit.

His first 40 days on the job has proven that.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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