USC athletic director Pat Haden’s rationale for retaining men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill, despite a 6-26 record last season, has always been simple: His players go to class, graduate and keep their noses clean.
For months, he has reiterated as much.
“He graduates kids, and the kids don’t get into trouble,” Haden told the Los Angeles Times on March 7.
That remains, to a large degree, why O’Neill will return for a fourth season as head of the Trojans’ basketball program. And that’s more than fair. Running a clean program is nothing to scoff at.
But that general perception is fading.
Last month, junior forward Ari Stewart, who had been sitting out the season because of NCAA transfer rules, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Arizona while traveling with the Trojans on a road trip. Charges are still pending after the case was referred to the Maricopa County attorney’s office last week.
Next season, Stewart will likely start for USC, along with incoming junior college transfer guard J.T. Terrell, who carries his own baggage, so to speak.
Terrell left Wake Forest in September after he was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.
Neither charge is unheard of in today’s world of big-time college basketball, sure. Neither is exactly shocking.
But remember this is one of the primary reasons O’Neill is back: He runs a clean program and his players stay out of trouble. Yet, two players, with arrest records, could start for the Trojans when the season tips off come November. And that’s fine, but they better win. They can’t afford to wallow in mediocrity much longer.
The saving grace for O’Neill, who holds a rather pedestrian 41-55 mark in three seasons with USC, has been two-fold: He’s managed a mess in the wake of NCAA sanctions stemming from improper benefits former guard O.J. Mayo received while with the program in 2008, and his players have been high-character guys.
But Stewart and Terrell’s pasts devalue that latter notion and frustrate a growingly apathetic fanbase. Perhaps more than anything, they increase pressure on O’Neill to win in his fourth season, pressure that will only grow as the season draws nearer.
O’Neill said he expects things to turn around. He said USC will be markedly better in 2013, that the team’s performance from last season was, by and large, an anomaly.
“That will be our goal — To be in the NCAA tournament — and I think we have a chance,” O’Neill said about his team’s prospects following its season-ending 55-40 loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.
Haden has uttered similar statements.
After a six-win season, it’d be pretty tough not to recognize USC has to be better.
Coaches don’t typically get the benefit of the doubt forever. Eventually they have to win.
At some point, if O’Neill hopes to keep his job in the coming seasons, USC has to get back to the Big Dance. It can’t afford not to. He recognizes that. After all, USC loses money when it comes to basketball.
It suffered losses of $464,000 and $1.1 million, during the 2010-2011 and 2009-2010 seasons, respectively, according to the NCAA Equity in Athletics report. Data is not available for its most recent season.
Interest among alumni and students is waning too. USC averaged just 3,970 fans at the Galen Center last season — the lowest in the six-year history of the venue. All signs indicate general indifference among fans.
It all means one thing: USC can’t afford to slip up when it comes to graduation rates and run-ins with the law. There is little room left for error for O’Neill at this point. Brushes with the law are generally bad. That goes without saying for the most part. But they’re even worse when a program is coming off a school record for losses in a single season. It’s one thing to lose. It’s another thing to lose and have players arrested on drug charges in the middle of a roadtrip.
Eventually, O’Neill will be judged, to a large degree, on his record. How many games does he win? How much money can he help the program make?
But his clock is ticking, and unfortunately — at least for his job security — arrests and criminal charges only make it tick faster.
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