Sign me up; I’m officially a believer in Kevin O’Neill


LOS ANGELES – When it was announced on June 20th that Kevin O’Neill would become the 16th head basketball coach in USC history, I immediately began shaking my head. Questioning the sanity of athletic director Mike Garrett, who had hired a coach with a 171-180 career record, I hastily began drawing comparisons between O’Neill and former Trojan football coach Paul Hackett, another hiree of Garrett who turned the USC football program into a Pac-10 bottom-feeder in just three short seasons at the helm.

It may have been a relatively premature accusation, seeing that O’Neill had yet to pace the sidelines of Galen Center and coach an actual collegiate basketball game. But nevertheless, I was ready to rip into a man, who in all reality had done nothing at USC to warrant such criticism.

So, as I sit here three months later pondering about the upcoming hoops season, I also find myself questioning those once-held reservations regarding O’Neill. In short, I am beginning to think that this hire may in fact pay off in the long-haul for a program not known for much success on the hardwood. I don’t mean to sound overly optimistic, as O’Neill has yet to coach one game for the Cardinal and Gold, but considering his actions in four short moths on the job, there are plenty of reasons for Trojan hoops fans to believe that this New York native will one day turn USC into a legitimate West Coast powerhouse.

One of the demanding aspects of the USC head coaching job is the ongoing NCAA investigation into the athletic department’s perceived lack of institutional control, which has created a swarming cloud over Jefferson and Figueroa. As a result, few coaches were willing to even consider the vacancy left by Tim Floyd’s resignation. Candidates such as Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon demanded that Garrett include a clause in his contract that would have allowed him to leave provided the Trojans were punished with any sanctions – still a rather likely scenario. However, O’Neill got on board and agreed to become the program’s next head coach with no reservations at all.

“I really didn’t care and don’t take this wrong,” said O’Neill regarding the NCAA investigation at his introductory press conference. “I didn’t care what had happened and we didn’t get into detail because that’s not my place. So the fact that there is an investigation going on never changed my view of the university at all.”

It’s his abundance of optimism and eagerness to actually be the USC basketball coach that is exciting so many alums, students, and everyday fans. For once, it appears as if someone actually wants to be the program’s coach. It isn’t a stepping stone to a bigger job. They’re committed to the long-haul.

“Everything is in place,” O’Neill added. “You have location, you have players, you have a great conference, you have a great university, you have great support, great facilities. There’s nothing here that says you can’t win. And that’s why I like this job and I think it’s a great job, and that’s what we intend to do here is win.”

That eagerness to be coaching at USC, has not only begun infusing life into a rather indifferent basketball fan base, but it has also attracted several of the top recruits to O’Neill’s budding program. While few five-star level prospects have been flocking to Southern California, O’Neill has been able to secure commitments from several of the nation’s better high school players.

Presently, the Trojans’ class of 2010 is ranked thirteenth nationally according to ESPNU’s College Basketball Recruiting Rankings, and two of those five recruits, are ranked in the ESPNU Top 10 – Dwayne Polee (78th) and Bryce Jones (98th). Rounding out the class is 6’6” small forward Garrett Jackson (Portland, Ore./Westview), 5’7” point guard Maurice Jones (Saginaw, Mich./Arthur Hill), and 6’9” power forward Curtis Washington (Elizabethtown, Ky.). All of these individuals, while not recruiting by the likes of UCLA, Kansas, or Kentucky, are all solid players respectively and represent potential building blocks for an up-and-coming program such as ‘SC.

Furthermore, O’Neill’s willingness to travel nationwide, spending countless hours scouting games and convincing seventeen year-old high school players to head west to ‘SC, has shown fans and media members alike his solid work effort and eagerness to bring some success to Southern California.

Not only has he tied up recruits for the coming years, but K.O., as he is commonly referred to on the message boards, has also made great strides to repair the damage left by Floyd’s departure and maintain solid team chemistry for this year’s team.

Over the summer, O’Neill traveled across the globe to meet personally with the returning players and their parents in order to reassure them that he is in fact committed to the rebuilding effort at USC. His willingness to do so has created a strong personal connection with players and their families.

“The most important people in any program are the players and their parents are an important group of people, their families, so I thought it was important to touch base with all of them,” O’Neill told the media at a press conference last week. “Recruiting is obviously something you have to really concentrate on and you have to do a good job with, but my first priority was to stabilize the group that was here and make sure they were all coming back, that the guys that needed to get through summer school did that and then we could go from there with recruiting and the next steps in the program.”

That family first mindset has further made him an instant hit among the alumni, as he continues to strive to build a passionate, devoted fanbase. At his introductory press conference this past Summer, he voluntarily gave out his cell phone number and has continuously reiterated the fact that practices are open to the public in order to enable fans and local youth coaches to keep tabs on the program.

Additionally, he has gone out of his way, to increase student involvement with the hoops program. Working alongside USC junior Eric Ronan, he has helped launched the Trojan Fever Fanatics, a new student spirit group aiming to improve student attendance at home basketball games and create a unique game atmosphere rivaling those of the Trojans’ Pac-10 counterparts.

“Coach has been extremely involved,” said Ronan, the co-executive director of the Fanatics, in a story published by the Daily Trojan last month. “He said he would do anything in his power to promote the group and support it so that we get more people at basketball games and have a better experience.”

Getting people to show up at Galen shouldn’t be too difficult provided ‘SC starts winning relatively soon, and with K.O. at the helm, it’s certainly a realistic possibility.