Interim coach matures by curbing temper, not intensity
Kevin O’Neill turns 51 Thursday, happy with where he’s at. And he doesn’t just mean the interim head basketball coach at the University of Arizona.
“I just have better perspective than I have ever had,” he said. “Basketball completely engulfed my entire life when I was coaching in college the first time.
“It’s still a very big part of my life, but there are times in every day when I can just shut it off. There were times when I couldn’t do that before. I just couldn’t.”
He hasn’t shut off the toughness, which is needed more than ever. He strains to find the right words to describe his current coaching situation.
“The whole thing . . . how can I say this . . . the whole . . . it’s the whole conglomeration of events,” he said.
O’Neill, UA’s coach-in-waiting for whenever Lute Olson decides to retire, has been in complicated situations before. This one is different.
He rebuilt at Marquette. Started over at Tennessee. Took on a huge project at Northwestern.
He has more talent at Arizona than he had at any of those spots, but certainly not as much across-the-board ability as UA is used to.
Not only does he have to follow a Hall of Famer, he has to do it during an awkward time – Olson’s leave of absence – with a young team in a league as difficult as it has ever been at a place that expects winning.
“It’s a very difficult situation when you’re replacing a guy whose name is on the court,” said O’Neill’s friend and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy. “That’s a tough job, but Kevin is a tough man and a tough coach.”
Toughness. That would be the overriding theme of O’Neill’s career as he went from here as a UA assistant in the late 1980s to there and there and there and eventually back to here.
Former players who love O’Neill – count UA legends Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott among them – do so not because he was easy on them, but because he was tough, demanding and unrelenting.
“I would say it was a rude awakening,” said Jim McIlvaine, who was a freshman on O’Neill’s first team at Marquette in 1989-90.
“One of the assistant coaches told me at various times, if you can make it through four years of Kevin O’Neill, you can make it through anything. He was right.
“A couple of years after I retired from the NBA (after the 2001 season), my wife left me. I don’t know how I would have handled it if not for the intestinal fortitude I learned from Kevin.
“I wrote him a long letter, telling him he helped me get through this in ways he couldn’t even imagine.”
Trouble at Tennessee
It hasn’t always been pretty.
For those who don’t like the choice of O’Neill as Olson’s successor, there are plenty of bad moments to cherry-pick from his career.
He clashed with athletic directors in college and general managers in the NBA. O’Neill’s disagreements with Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey led to his surprising departure to Northwestern after the 1997 season.
O’Neill felt he didn’t have the full support of the Tennessee administration. He had a notable fallout with Dickey over the eligibility of freshman Isaiah Victor. O’Neill says the NCAA cleared Victor, but Dickey insisted that Victor be redshirted.
“I should have just sucked it up and said, ‘We’re going to be OK next year,’ ” O’Neill said.
“I got into a back-and-forth thing with our AD, and then I left in spite of knowing it was probably the wrong thing. That was the only bad move I made, going from Tennessee to Northwestern. The rest of my moves have all been moves up.”
He ran off several players at Tennessee, including Cortez Barnes, who ran afoul of O’Neill’s offseason weight training program. Barnes went to the coach’s office to protest and ended up trashing the place, according to the 2003 book “String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball.”
According to the book, “Still another player got canned after directing some obscene gestures at O’Neill behind the coach’s back, or so he thought.”
“While O’Neill was having a conversation . . . in the Tennessee basketball office, the player, who thought he was out of O’Neill’s sight, was giving his coach the business with both hands.
“O’Neill caught his reflection in a glass-enclosed picture on the wall.
” ‘Get the hell out, and don’t ever come back,’ were O’Neill’s last words to the stunned player.”
Overall, though, Tennessee can’t feel too badly.
O’Neill had inherited a team in shambles, coming off a five-win season.
There was no discipline in the program. When he left, O’Neill had restored order and left behind the talent that Jerry Green used for four consecutive 20-win seasons.
O’Neill’s reputation as being loud and profane followed him to Northwestern. A Chicago columnist once referred to him as “Cussin’ Kev.”
One of his former Northwestern players, Tavares Hardy, is now an assistant coach there. Asked if he finds himself saying things O’Neill used to say on the practice court, Hardy says, “I did definitely learn a lot from K.O., but I certainly don’t use his language.”
Hardy adds: “I hear he may have mellowed.”
O’Neill says he has.
Four-letter words still fly out of his mouth, but he says he no longer feels the need to shock players with foul language. He moves his timeout huddles onto the court in an attempt to shield fans behind the bench from oral bombs.
“When I was a younger guy, I had no filter whatsoever,” O’Neill says. “If it came to my mind, it was on my lips. I’ve learned that just isn’t the right way.”
He was at Northwestern for three seasons, becoming one of only three coaches in school history to take the Wildcats to the postseason.
Northwestern went to the 1999 NIT, but a young team plunged to 5-25 the following season.
Four players decided to transfer.
“They didn’t all leave for the same reason,” Hardy says. “I knew he was an intense coach when I decided to play for him. Anybody who was expecting something less, they just didn’t do their research. They should have understood what they were getting into.
“You can’t blame K.O., but at the same time, he had something to do with it.”
O’Neill’s star player at Northwestern was center Evan Eschmeyer, who landed on the New Jersey Nets with McIlvaine as a rookie in the 1999-2000 season. Eschmeyer lived at McIlvaine’s house that season, forming what they jokingly called the “Kevin O’Neill Support Group.”
Byron Scott coached the Nets for the 2000-01 season.
“He had us doing some intense stuff,” McIlvaine said.
“Evan and I were just kind of gutting it out. We would look at each other and tell each other that we had made it through Kevin O’Neill’s practices, and Kevin O’Neill’s practices are way harder than anything this guy can throw out.
“If nothing else, what sticks with you forever is the toughness.”
Making some changes
O’Neill isn’t the same guy he was 10, 15, 20 years ago. Who is? But he is all about accountability, so you can’t ignore his past, good or bad.
“A lot of problems, I’ve brought upon myself,” he said. “I’ve believed in doing things a certain way and taken a businesslike approach. A lot of people don’t believe in that.”
And rebuilding is never easy.
“There is a reason why you were brought in to turn things around. They were screwed up,” O’Neill says, “so there are going to be dead bodies along the way when you’re changing the culture.
“I have always noticed about teams that people hate change even if it’s for the better because everyone gets in their own little comfort zone, in their own little kingdom, where they feel good and function well.
“And when it’s changed at all, that’s hard for people.”
In the past 25 years, Marquette has been to the Sweet 16 twice, once under O’Neill and once when guard Dwyane Wade led the team to the 2003 Final Four.
But all that rebuilding for O’Neill is one reason why his career record at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern was sub-.500, at 152-165.
“That’s not an issue,” UA athletic director Jim Livengood said last month when he announced O’Neill as the successor to Olson.
“Believe me, I get plenty of people who want to share those experiences and ask, ‘Aren’t you worried about . . .?’
“This is a different situation. I tend to view people in terms of my relationship with them right now.”
Right now, Arizona is 12-6 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-10. O’Neill plopped down in the middle of a trying situation. Could anybody else have done better?
“On the court, he is our leader,” says freshman guard Jerryd Bayless. “Off the court, he is a very friendly guy who you can talk to about anything.”
Whatever happens the rest of the way this season – and it might not all be love and rose petals – Arizona is getting the best of Kevin O’Neill, the brilliant defensive coach who has learned more than a few things about life and leadership along the way.
He remains, though, unfailingly intense. That’s his calling card. That’s what the Wildcats needed to shed their soft image. It’s what Olson wanted.
Some things probably don’t change.
“I really enjoyed playing for him,” McIlvaine says. “Well, maybe I didn’t enjoy it when I was playing for him, but afterward I really appreciated it.”
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
O’NEILL’S RECORD AS DIVISION I HEAD COACH
School Years W-L Pct.
Marquette 1989-94 86-62 .581
Tennessee 1994-97 36-47 .434
Northwestern 1997-00 30-56 .349
Arizona 2007- 12-6 .667
Totals 164-171 .490
> Led Marquette to NCAA Tournament berths in 1993 and 1994 (Sweet 16)
> Coached NBA’s Toronto Raptors to 33-49 (.402) mark in 2003-04.