It started off with a bang.
USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett introduced new men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill at a Varsity Lounge press conference Monday, saying, “Kevin, the floor is yours.”
O’Neill’s first public comments as the coach of a program under intense scrutiny from the NCAA?
He pointed over to his wife, 32-year-old Roberta. “There won’t be any questions about recruiting, I trust,” O’Neill said. “I can recruit, obviously.”
All joking aside, O’Neill, 52, made a favorable impression in his first step on a long road back for both him and the USC basketball program.
Former coach Tim Floyd had made inroads in raising the national profile of what had long been a largely irrelevant program, but, facing a looming NCAA investigation this offseason, he decided to resign.
The one-paragraph resignation e-mail sent to Garrett came June 9, less than a month after Floyd was accused of delivering an envelope of cash to the handler of former USC basketball player O.J. Mayo.
Since then, the inquiries grew louder and louder, leading Garrett and Senior Vice President of Administration Todd Dickey to deliver unprecedented video statements posted on USC’s official website.
Many wondered where USC would find its next coach, considering both the likelihood of NCAA sanctions that could limit postseason play and/or scholarships and the sheer lack of talent left on the roster, as only nine scholarship players remain after a mass exodus of both current players and incoming recruits.
Well, Garrett and USC found him, toiling as an assistant coach and special assistant to the general manager for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, just one year removed from spending the 2007-2008 season as the interim head coach at Pac-10 rival Arizona.
“We’ve been through a lot, and, in looking at different potential candidates all over the country … I came to the conclusion that I really felt elated about the fact that this is the kind of person who was available,” Garrett said.
Reports say that Garrett first offered the job to Pittsburgh head man Jamie Dixon, the former protégé of UCLA coach Ben Howland. After Dixon said no, both NBA Finals analyst (and former NBA head coach) Jeff Van Gundy and current UNLV coach Lon Kruger reportedly rebuffed offers from USC as well.
Nevertheless, Garrett — who has caught much flak for his coaching hires over the years, including the notion that Pete Carroll was his fourth choice to become the football head coach in 2000 — insisted that O’Neill was indeed his first choice for the job.
“Everyone I talked to was not shying away from USC,” Garrett said. “It was not a selling job, it was more of a find the right fit.
“I think Kevin was my first choice because when I started talking to him, he’s the one that I wanted to have. He’s the guy that fit what I needed. It was a natural fit,” Garrett said.
But O’Neill himself doesn’t come without controversy.
He’s known as a Bob Knight-lite, a fierce competitor who sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him.
Many of his former players have expressed distaste with his methods. He’s never been a player’s coach; rather, he’s been labeled as more of a defensive-minded, let-the-offense-flow kind of guy.
The still-fiery O’Neill attacked those conceptions Monday.
“I’m a different coach than I was the first time I was in college. I really don’t apologize for how I coach at all. I coach hard, I’m aggressive … but it’s like anything else. Over 20 years, you do change a little bit.
“I’m not for every player, and that’s all there is to it. Every coach isn’t for every player,” O’Neill said. “But, I’ve been in a multitude of players’ weddings, and pro and college guys don’t invite you to be in their weddings unless they like you a little bit.”
O’Neill further defended his coaching style.
“I’m a great defensive coach. But what people think is that if you’re a defensive coach, you don’t coach offense, or if you’re an offensive coach you don’t value defense. I value the whole game.”
USC returns only one player who averaged more than 18 minutes per game last season: senior guard Dwight Lewis. Junior guard/forward Marcus Simmons and sophomore forwards Nikola Vucevic and Leonard Washington will be the only other returners who contributed last season.
Despite that, O’Neill said he expects to compete immediately.
“I think we’ve got a good core group of guys,” O’Neill said. “It would be my expectation that, when we hit the practice court, that we’re thinking about nothing short of being in the NCAA Tournament.
“This is a competitive group, and I think these guys will play good basketball every single day, I think they’ll work hard, and I think they’ll surprise some people.”
As for the ongoing NCAA investigation, it didn’t seem to bother O’Neill much.
“I really didn’t care what had happened, and we didn’t get into detail because that’s not my place,” O’Neill said. “I was taking the job no matter what. I wanted the job from the beginning because it’s USC. The fact that there’s an investigation going on never changed my view of the university at all.”
Reports have said the earliest any NCAA sanction could come would be October. Until then, the program is left to hope they won’t be too short-handed this season.
“We’re in limbo, we don’t know,” Garrett said. “They’re in the process, so are we, and we’re working to get to the point where we can finally come to a resolution.”
Garrett stressed, though, that O’Neill — with 12 years of experience as a head coach at the college or pro levels, including stints with Marquette and the Toronto Raptors — was the right man to lead the program out of the shadow of investigation and into a new image.
“He’d be a great coach for us any season, let alone what we’re going through now,” Garrett said. “I know he’ll guide us the way we should be guided.”