Amid year four of a tenure that endured the worst in school history, USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill is gone. O’Neill was fired on Monday during a morning meeting, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden announced in a statement.
O’Neill finishes his USC tenure with a 48-65 record, with last season’s abysmal record and this year’s slow start likely contributing to his dismissal. USC battled a rash of injuries while finishing 6-26 (1-17) in 2011-12, and is currently 7-10 on the year, with a 2-2 record in Pac-12 play.
Associate head coach Bob Cantu will take over as the interim head coach. Cantu has been with the team since 2000 and was promoted to associate head coach in 2010.
O’Neill took over the USC job in the summer of 2009 in the wake of an NCAA investigation of the program under previous coach Tim Floyd. Despite facing adversity stemming from the program’s sanctions, which included a postseason ban, the Trojans finished 16-14. O’Neill had his most successful season in 2010-11, going 19-15 and earning an NCAA tournament berth. The Trojans were defeated in the first round by Virginia Commonwealth.
Things went downhill from there. Last season, USC’s top returning player, senior point guard Jio Fontan, tore his ACL during a summer team trip to Brazil. Fontan missed the entire season, while other heavy contributors in forwards Dewayne Dedmon and Aaron Fuller, among others, missed significant time also because of injury. The Trojans’ 26 losses that season were the most in school history and presumably put O’Neill on the hot seat heading into this fall.
The Trojans had high hopes for 2012-13, as USC brought in a slew of transfers, including senior forward Eric Wise from UC Irvine and arguably the top junior college transfer in the country in junior J.T. Terrell, a former Wake Forest standout. The talent was improved over the prior season, but the early results were all too similar.
After starting the season 3-1, the Trojans lost five in a row in a difficult non-conference stretch that included losses to three ranked teams.
“We overscheduled,” Cantu said. “We should have had more bye games in there.”
At 5-8, the Trojans were the only Pac-12 squad to finish with a losing record in non-conference play. USC won its Pac-12 opener against Stanford, but then dropped winnable games against Cal and Colorado. The Trojans defeated Utah 76-59 on Saturday, but the team’s first road victory in nearly 14 months was not enough to save O’Neill’s job.
At the end of the day, it came down to winning: something O’Neill was not able to do enough of during his tenure.
“It was hard for me to evaluate him as a head coach until this year when he had enough players and veterans to compete,” Haden said in the statement. “As the season progressed, it became evident to me that we needed new leadership in our men’s basketball program.”
O’Neill is known for his loud and witty personality but also became infamous for an altercation with a University of Arizona booster in March 2011. O’Neill was previously the interim head coach at Arizona for one season as well as head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, among other NBA and college stops.
“He’s someone I’ll hopefully remain in contact with for the rest of my life,” said Fontan, who called O’Neill this morning after learning of his firing. “He taught me a lot on what it takes to be a pro at the next level, about going through life changes and how you just fight through a lot of things.”
Wise, the team’s leading scorer, also expressed surprise at the decision.
“It was shocking, but it’s just something you have to go through and we all have to deal with,” Wise said.
Cantu has never been a head coach at the college level outside of one game after O’Neill’s suspension in 2011, and was mum on whether he thinks he’ll be considered for the position over an outside replacement.
“As an assistant, your goal was always to become a head coach,” he said. “It’s always been my goal, [but] you never envision it happening this way, that’s for sure.”
The Trojans are only four games into their Pac-12 slate, giving Cantu almost half a season to make his mark.
“There are 14 games left and there are a lot of things that can happen,” Cantu said. “Anything is possible.”