Monday, March 14, 2011

THE STRANGE BASKETBALL ODYSSEY OF KEVIN O'NEILL

Unless you're a die hard basketball fan, you've probably never
heard of Kevin O'Neill. If you're not his wife or Rick
Carlisle, you definitely don't know him very well. Truth is,
few people have gotten close to the veteran coach because
he doesn't stay in one place long enough for anyone to
get acquainted with him.

O'Neill has coached in 2 countries, 10 states, with 15 different teams,
over 31 years. Look up the word "peripatetic" and you might just find
a picture of O'Neill next to it. He is what you call a basketball gypsy,
or a lifer. However, the phrase that really best describes O'Neill,
is "loose cannon."

By all accounts, O'Neill is a very good basketball coach. One couldn't
get to be head coach at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern,
Toronto (NBA) and USC, if they couldn't recruit, motivate,
and didn't  know their X's and O's. However, it appears O'Neill
has been placed in that category every leader wants to avoid:
 "good coach, but...."

You see, O'Neill's journey through the game has been filled with
twists, turns, and some huge potholes. Some people can swerve
to avoid them, O'Neill blows right through them. There is damage,
but not enough to slow him down or knock him off the road.
He just keeps on going.

The trips always seem to start out well for O'Neill, but he has a
habit of missing the warnings signs of the dangerous roads ahead.
And then, well, accidents happen.

Last Thursday, an accident happened. O'Neill, the head coach
of USC, got into an altercation with an Arizona booster at a hotel
where the team was staying during the Pac-10 tournament. He and
his wife, reportedly, had one too many cocktails. They mixed it
up with the Arizona supporter, making a scene which was deemed
embarrassing.  Incidentally, O'Neill had a history with this
fan when he was an assistant at Arizona.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, who is trying to clean up
the Trojans image in the wake of  the Regge Bush-OJ Mayo mess,
promptly suspended O'Neill for the rest of the Pac-10 tournament.

However, after further investigation, Haden reversed
field and reinstated O'Neill after missing just one game.
The Trojans didn't win the Pac-10 title, but they did get an at-large
bid to the NCAA tournament on Sunday.

Unfortunately that's not the story, O'Neill's behavior is. The incident
cannot be ignored because the pattern has been stitched. O'Neill
has gained a reputation for being confrontational and has been called
"Bob Knight-lite". He is a yeller and volcanic, capable of erupting at
any moment. A lot of people avoid confrontations. History shows,
O'Neill attracts them.

When he was an assistant at Arizona four years ago, Lute Olsen
left the team for personal reasons. O'Neill was promoted to interim coach.
Shortly thereafter, Arizona athletic director announced that O'Neill
would be the designated successor to Olsen when he retired.

Olsen announced that he would come back for the 2008-2009 season,
but for some reason, Olson wasn't bringing O'Neill back as his assistant.
It's never been confirmed, but the two reportedly got into a heated argument,
causing them to go their separate ways. In October of 2008, just before
the season was to start,  Olsen suddenly announced his retirement, leaving
the program without a head coach. O'Neill was long gone by then,
and wasn't asked to come back.

But wait, there's more. When O'Neill was the head coach at
Northwestern in the late 90's, his team was playing Indiana
and Bobby Knight. The Wildcat fans starting yelling "Hoosier
Daddy?", as in "Who is your daddy?" The verbal assault was
intended for Knight, whom as you'd expect, didn't like it.
Knight got into a heated exchange with O'Neill in full view of everyone.
ESPN caught them after the game on a practice court "hashing"
out there issues.

The incident with Arizona fan, the argument with Olsen,
and the heated exchange with Knight has formed a pattern
of behavior with O'Neill. He might not have instigated
the confrontations, but O'Neill was always part of them.

Pat Haden says that O'Neill is a terrific person who has
a track record of running clean programs. And Lord
knows, USC is in dire need of at least one dirt-free sport.
O'Neill is also a devout Catholic who goes to church
every day. Rick Carlisle trusted and liked him enough to ask
O'Neill to be his assistant in both Indiana and Detroit.

But there is that "but" with O'Neill. Heading for the
hotel bar immediately after the game and getting visibly
drunk with your wife is one red-flag. The two of them
mixing it up with an Arizona fan, is another.

And those pictures of O'Neill holding a cocktail in his hand
hit the Internet, and that wasn't pretty either. Images of Billy Martin just
flashed through my mind.

Sadly, O'Neill is known more for his confrontations,
than his basketball acumen. It's hard to ignore his past, and
you have wonder, if one more incident will
destroy his future-- for good.

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