Few of the souvenirs that Kevin O’Neill collected in his many coaching stops have made it to his office in the Galen Center.
Instead, their charred remains might be lying in a pit somewhere in upstate New York.
The bonfires back East consist of O’Neill burning his clothes from previous jobs, a ceremony he has thrown on multiple occasions. For a coach who has been constantly on the move, it is a symbolic way of purging the past.
“The point of it is that when you’re in a new job, you should forget about other jobs you’ve had,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill is looking for a new beginning after making stops with seven different NBA and college teams over the past decade. But the man tabbed to clean up and repair USC’s basketball program has a history that has followed him to seemingly every coaching stop.
Through his coaching career, the 52-year-old O’Neill has earned a reputation for his fiery and demanding style, which has occasionally alienated those around him. While still paying respect to his ability and coaching methods, some of his former players and assistants have painted the picture of a coach who is the antithesis of the hang-loose style that has made Pete Carroll so popular around campus and throughout the city.
At his introductory press conference as USC’s head basketball coach on June 22, O’Neill told a roomful of reporters, “Contrary to popular belief, I am not Darth Vader.” But Athletic Director Mike Garrett’s decision for the opening left by Tim Floyd’s departure was largely panned by college basketball pundits, with CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel writing, “To know Kevin O’Neill is to hate him.”
But O’Neill has an army of colleagues ready to refute the coach’s detractors. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle have all stood by him and sung his praises as a master strategist.
“He’s like a drill sergeant ready to reform everything in the image he desires,” said Evan Eschmeyer, who played two seasons for O’Neill at Northwestern from 1997-99.
Despite spending nine of the last 10 years in the NBA, O’Neill is well known for his college basketball exploits.
His most recent stop, a turmoil-filled 2007 season with Arizona, generated its fair share of headlines as the one-time Wildcat assistant returned to become the interim coach. Legendary coach Lute Olson still hovered around Tucson, however, and the team finished with 19 wins, its lowest output since 1986.
The school still extended its streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, but many considered the season a disappointment. Olson announced he intended to return the following season (though he retired before the start of the 2008-09 schedule) despite giving O’Neill the title of coach-in-waiting, and O’Neill eventually parted ways with the school the year after being reassigned to a role as a school fundraiser.
“The year took a toll on everybody, but I think he did a really good job in a tough situation,” said Josh Pastner, one of O’Neill’s assistant coaches at Arizona and now the head coach at Memphis. “It helped him get to the point he is now at USC.”
Having coached at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, O’Neill’s resume at the collegiate level extends beyond his one year in the desert — but so too do the stories of his sometimes abrasive style.
O’Neill earned the nickname “Mad Dog” while playing at McGill University, and the moniker extended beyond his playing days.
According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, when Jason Moore, a reserve guard during O’Neill’s time at Tennessee, struggled in a game against Arkansas, O’Neill yelled at him, “You better hope you die before halftime!”
O’Neill’s vitriol was not reserved only for his players, as on a roadtrip to Pauley Pavilion while coaching with Arizona, he broke a grease board at halftime when his team was down 20 points.
Tavaras Hardy, whom O’Neill recruited to Northwestern and who now serves as an assistant coach at the school, said his former coach had an extensive habit of peppering his addresses to players with expletives.
“He’s going to tell it like he sees it, and sometimes he’s going to say it in an animated way,” he said. “Sometimes it’s actually funny, but it’s no secret that he has a different vocabulary than a lot of people.”
Despite admitting that he has at times had conflicts with players, O’Neill said the only players he didn’t get along with were “the ones who didn’t want to work hard,” and that his coaching style did not create as much friction as advertised.
“If wanting guys to be on time and play their hardest is demanding,” he said, “then I’m demanding.”
But O’Neill’s style has often been grating on players who he inherited from previous rosters, a commonality during many coaching changes. After O’Neill’s second year at Northwestern, four players transferred, albeit for different reasons.
“Initially, there will be some people who will take a second look, especially among the players,” Eschmeyer said. “But as they get used to his style and learn from him, it will all start to make sense.”
A New Leaf
Despite being run ragged, many of O’Neill’s former players see a method to his madness.
Eschmeyer’s introduction to O’Neill came in the form of a four-hour conditioning session that left most of the team keeled over and vomiting in trash cans and the rest weak in the legs.
“The message was that things were different and that we had to come back ready to work, and we definitely got it,” Eschmeyer said. “We came back in shape and were better off for it.”
Eschmeyer developed into an NBA-caliber player, spending four seasons in the league. In Eschmeyer’s first years with the New Jersey Nets, coach Byron Scott employed brutal practice techniques that Pat Riley had used during his time with the Lakers.
“All that stuff was no big deal because I had played for coach O’Neill,” Eshmeyer said. “After playing for him, I had nothing left to be afraid of.”
O’Neill spent last season as an assistant coach and defensive specialist for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Former head coach Marc Iavaroni found that O’Neill’s personality didn’t live up to what had been said.
“He’s definitely mellowed,” said Iavaroni, who knew O’Neill through previous stops as an assistant in the NBA. “I heard a lot of stories about his intensity, but he was always an even-keeled guy when I was around him.”
Praised for his keen basketball mind, O’Neill has also been lauded for the lasting impact he’s had as a teacher of the game.
“Marc [Iavaroni] and I both look back on our time with him and cherish it because of how much he taught us,” said Jay Triano, who was an assistant to O’Neill in Toronto in 2003-04 and currently serves as the team’s head coach.
A few of the stories involving O’Neill have become the stuff of urban legend, according to Eschmeyer. In a particularly contentious game between Indiana and Northwestern in 1999, Eschmeyer had to separate Indiana coach Bobby Knight and O’Neill when chants started in the Northwestern student section provoked an Indiana assistant.
But Eschmeyer insisted that the two were close friends and that there was never a chance of the incident escalating into anything more than a heated moment.
“What no one knows is that a few minutes after that incident, coach Knight and coach O’Neill are 100 yards behind the bleachers laughing about it,” Eschmeyer said.
O’Neill said he had no regrets about the past and is fully focused on taking USC to the next level.
“Sometimes you wish you had won one more game here and there,” he said. “But I’m comfortable with where I’m at right now.”