On Monday morning, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden dismissed USC coach Kevin O’Neill after more than three seasons on the job. O’Neill was 48-65 during his time at USC, despite the fact that the team was coming off a 76-59 road victory over the Utah Utes and seemed to be gaining some momentum.
Haden said in a press release that “despite a nice road win in our last game, I felt it was best to make a change now, with most of the Pac-12 season still ahead of us, in order to re-energize our team.” Whatever the reason, assistant Bob Cantu has been handed the reins and will have a chance to finish out the season.
Now the question is: Who’s the long-term solution at the head coach position?
First, the most immediate (albeit unlikely) option: Cantu himself. The 38-year-old has been a steady source of dependability during some rocky times in USC basketball history, serving on the coaching staffs for Henry Bibby, Jim Saia, Tim Floyd and O’Neill. He knows the ins and outs of the program and has seen the team make NCAA tournament appearances and flounder to six wins for an entire season. That’s an important qualifier for the position as the interim coach tries to keep a ragtag roster intact for the remainder of the year. And don’t discount his recruiting, which has played an instrumental part in getting a few NBA-level talents to choose the Trojans over the well-esteemed basketball program across town.
Cantu hasn’t counted himself out yet — in a press release Monday he told reporters, “As an assistant, your goal was always to become a head coach. It’s always been my goal, [but] you never envision it happening this way, that’s for sure.”
Realistically though, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to keep the job. It’s not for a lack of ability or experience, as Cantu has certainly paid his dues to put himself in position for an upgraded role.
What it ultimately comes down to is heightened expectations, and barring a Cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament, USC fans are going to want an established, big name running the struggling basketball program. Cantu will likely get a legitimate shot at a head coaching job sooner than later, but it’s doubtful that opportunity will come with the Trojans.
So that leaves two other options: a current/former college coach, or a current/former NBA coach. Haden would be wise to stick to a college option, especially after the indiscretions of Tim Floyd and the lack of victories produced by O’Neill. Both had experience in the pros and couldn’t get the Trojans over the hump for a sustained period of time (technically, Floyd got USC to three straight NCAA tournament appearances, but those years are now looked down upon).
Former Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus has expressed interest in the position, according to Yahoo!’s Marc Spears, but Theus doesn’t have sustained success at any level other than one strong year at New Mexico State. The Trojans would be better served looking for a candidate with a consistent track record.
Former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg is also rumored to be interested, but his resume features long periods of mediocrity during his previous stints.
The most logical choice would be University of Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. He’s from North Hollywood, Calif., and maintained the momentum Ben Howland created with the Panthers in the early 2000s into a full-on powerhouse. He reached the 200-win mark faster than any other coach in NCAA history (sharing the record with Mark Few and Roy Williams) and has done so without any superstars on the roster — the highest-drafted player under his tenure was Sam Young with the 36th pick in the NBA draft. That would bode well for the Trojans who, for every O.J. Mayo and Nick Young, have had dry spells without NBA-level talent on the roster.
Dixon also gave a classic, non-committal answer when asked about his interest in the USC job. “I don’t talk about it or think about it,” Dixon said. “We’re just going about our business getting ready for Villanova.”
It might be a long shot, but it’s a long shot worth pursuing. The Trojans have settled for guys with NBA backgrounds who haven’t proven they have what it takes to build up a contender in the college ranks. Dixon would bring some real legitimacy to the program and satisfy basketball-hungry fans looking to root for a winner once again.