The stare was telling.
It was the second half of a blowout home loss at the hands of Minnesota in early December. USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, sitting courtside, wasn’t so much watching what was happening on the court but staring, fixated on USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who frantically paced the Galen Center sidelines.
The Trojans, again already under .500, were down, trailing the Golden Gophers by double digits as O’Neill scrambled to find the right combination of players to put on the floor. At times, he’d play two 7-footers at once, opting to insert centers Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby into the lineup simultaneously. Or he’d go with a smaller lineup, playing the 6-foot-6 UC Irvine transfer Eric Wise at power forward.
And as O’Neill scrambled to find something that could re-energize his group, Haden continued to stare.
You sensed this was an evaluation that wasn’t going all that well and Haden was waiting for something, anything, to flip a switch.
Would it be that right combination of players? Would it be a restructured scheme or a new offensive attack? Maybe a few extra rosaries might do the trick.
No matter —the combinations never clicked. USC hasn’t turned its season around. And now, just more than a month later, O’Neill, in his fourth season with the program, is out of a job, fired Monday morning following an announcement from the school. He was 48-65 since being hired in June 2009.
The program really just never got on track.
Over his tenure, O’Neill offered a variety of explanations why things never did click. In year one, it was a self-imposed postseason ban in the wake of NCAA violations related to former guard O.J. Mayo. Year three, it was the rash of season-derailing injuries. By year four, it was a need for more time to help a team composed largely of transfers — a team dubbed the “Second-Chance Kids” — to gel.
No matter how sensible or credible each reason proved to be, USC never got it done with O’Neill at the helm. His team’s performance was never at a sufficient level and so, as many expected, he faced dismissal.
Under O’Neill’s watch, the Trojans ranked last among schools from the “power six” conferences, which includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, in points per game and was second to last in winning percentage, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That includes a school single-season worst for losses with 26 a year ago.
Even for USC, which doesn’t carry much of a decorated history when it comes to men’s basketball, that’s not good enough. And at 7-10 overall this season, with nine losses in the last 13 games, there wasn’t much indication the future was any brighter. So why postpone the inevitable?
“As the season progressed, it became evident to me that we needed new leadership in our men’s basketball program,” Haden said in a statement released Monday.
That’s all that needs to be said.
This isn’t about being fair to a coach or about giving him more time and more chances. Look, the foremost reason head coaches get more time to begin with is to increase a sample size and thus give athletic administrators like Haden more time to properly evaluate their performance. He’s had that.
By now, do you think Haden needs more time to assess the program and a coach who has been on the sidelines for more than 400 college basketball games and 113 with USC?
Since the 2011 Pac-10 tournament, USC has mirrored a sinking ship — pardon the cliché. Following a 14-point win over California in the quarterfinals, O’Neill was involved in an altercation with a University of Arizona booster in a Downtown Los Angeles hotel lobby. The next day, he was suspended for the remainder of the tournament. USC would lose its semifinal game to Arizona and later its opening round NCAA tournament contest against Virginia Commonwealth. Since that altercation, USC is 13-38.
Whatever momentum the Trojans had — winning six of their last seven games following the opening-round victory over the Golden Bears — vanished. The program has yet to recover. It hasn’t felt the same since.
By this point, it’s not about being fair to O’Neill. It’s about being fair to the boosters, to alumni, to students, to fans. It’s about being fair to the players, to the program, to a $147 million, on-campus arena that opened just seven years ago.
This day was coming. Everyone knew it. Haden’s had ample time to assess O’Neill and the report card — fair or unfair — wasn’t up to par. He didn’t pass the evaluation. Such is the business.
If USC considers itself a big-time college basketball program, it might as well act like one. It did Monday. Its coach wasn’t winning — not enough anyway. So it severed ties. It’s that simple. Good for Pat Haden and good for USC.
Correction: The story incorrectly stated that Kevin O’Neill coached “more than 1,000 college basketball games.” It should have stated “more than 400 college basketball games.”
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