He might not have been the first choice . . . or the second . . . or possibly even the third. But Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach Kevin O’Neill has been picked to take over the troubled USC basketball program.
The announcement today came after a nearly two-week search during which USC was turned down twice by Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon and once by Nevada Las Vegas Coach Lon Kruger. USC officials also got a cold shoulder from former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy.
O’Neill, 52, replaces Tim Floyd, who resigned June 9 in the midst of a tumultuous off-season that included allegations he hand-delivered a payment to an associate of former USC star O.J. Mayo in 2007.
O’Neill, personable and energetic, faces an immense salvage operation. The Trojans’ football and basketball programs are under NCAA investigation. And since the basketball team completed a season in which it won the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament for a school-record third consecutive time, it has lost three players who declared early for the NBA draft and several recruits who asked out of scholarship commitments or changed oral commitments. USC has only nine scholarship players remaining on its roster.
USC announced the hiring via an e-mail that directed reporters to the school’s athletic website, which carried video statements from O’Neill and Athletic Director Mike Garrett.
Garrett did not address the problems that have dragged down USC’s program -- he refused an interview request -- but said in his statement he was “thrilled” to have hired O’Neill.
Reached by cellphone, O’Neill declined to comment, but in his statement he addressed the task at hand, saying, “I recognize that USC basketball has been through a tough time lately,” and, “One thing I expect people might second-guess me on is whether I made the right call in taking this job.”
O’Neill, who is to be introduced at a news conference Monday, said he had been following the situation in media reports and hinted that he may have had as many questions for school officials as they did for him during the search process. “USC could not have been more forthcoming and honest answering my questions,” he said.
As to whether the NCAA investigation would hamper recruiting, he said, ". . . If I thought I wouldn’t be able to do my job -- do the job that the university expects of me and equally important that I expect of myself -- I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
O’Neill has a reputation of being a good recruiter and game coach. His style has been compared to that of UCLA’s Ben Howland, whose core curriculum is defense with offense at times considered an elective.
That perception, though, has already cost USC another recruit. Santa Ana Mater Dei guard Gary Franklin, a 2010 commitment, said today he would look elsewhere.
“Coach O’Neill’s style is more defensive,” said Franklin, who will be a high school senior in the fall. “I don’t think he is like [former Arizona coach] Lute Olson or Tim Floyd, letting players run up and down the court. That’s not a style I see myself playing in.”
Westchester High’s Dwayne Polee Jr., another 2010 commitment, will meet with O’Neill, Polee’s father said. Dwayne Polee Sr. was USC director of basketball operations under Floyd but said, “My job doesn’t depend on my son coming to SC.”
O’Neill has been head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. He led Marquette to the NCAA tournament twice, reaching the Sweet 16 in 1994.
He has a 171-180 record in 12 seasons as a college head coach and also spent 11 seasons in the NBA, one as head coach for the Toronto Raptors, who went 33-49 under his guidance in 2003-04. He also has been an assistant with the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and, under Van Gundy, the New York Knicks.
O’Neill was in place to be Olson’s successor at Arizona. He took over as interim coach in 2007-08 and was anointed the heir by Athletic Director Jim Livengood, who said, “Kevin is our coach for now, and will be our coach in the future when Lute decides to retire.”
But when Olson returned in April 2008 he announced he was removing O’Neill as an assistant.
USC players were reluctant to talk about their new coach -- “I have to meet him first,” one said -- but his hiring does end some uncertainty.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back to doing what I came here to do,” forward Leonard Washington said recently. “It’s been pretty confusing.”
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.
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College: Montreal McGill University (BA in education), 1979; Marycrest (Iowa) College (master’s in secondary education), 1983.
High school experience: Hammond (N.Y.) Central.
College experience (head coach): North County (N.Y.) C.C., Marycrest College, Marquette, Northwestern, Tennessee, Arizona (interim head coach and assistant).
NBA experience: Toronto (head coach); New York, Detroit, Indiana, Memphis (assistant).
Scouting report: Defense-first coach and strong disciplinarian, yet once picked up a recruit at the airport while wearing a gorilla suit.
-- Chris Foster