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Gimino: O’Neill: Cut the guy some slack

Interim coach has not been given a fair test with Cats

Interim University of Arizona men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill was thrust into a difficult situation when coach Lute Olson decided to take a leave of absence Nov. 4.

Interim University of Arizona men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill was thrust into a difficult situation when coach Lute Olson decided to take a leave of absence Nov. 4.

Judging from some of the reaction I read and hear about Arizona interim basketball coach Kevin O’Neill, it seems as if he went door to door and kicked everybody’s dog.

Now, the guy doesn’t walk on water, and he ain’t no saint, but he has my enduring empathy for being the unplanned helmsman through a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that weren’t of his making.

By all means, let’s blame O’Neill.

From the comments section this week on the Tucson Citizen Web site:

• Please tell me that O’Neill is leaving and never returning.

• Kevin O’Neill is a joke.

• KO is . . . a complete failure as a head coach.

That’s just a little cross section of opinion – the sentiments of which are repeated on popular message boards and talk radio – that likely represents a sizable portion of the general fandom.

Some of that might be because fans don’t like O’Neill’s use of the bench or the way he burns timeouts or his unwillingness to play zone defense or whatever. Legitimate points worth discussing.

“Everybody has an opinion,” O’Neill said. “That’s why fans pay their money and that’s why we have a great support group here. We have great fans.”

But through this season’s ups and downs, I keep coming back to this:

None of this is a fair test for O’Neill.

He won’t be Pac-10 Coach of the Year – I maintain he would have had a great shot if his team had stayed healthy – but he might be up for the award given to the guy most deserving of a little slack.

O’Neill was quietly going about the business that Lute Olson hired him to do last spring – teach defense and instill toughness – when he became the emergency head coach Nov. 4.

And let’s not have collective amnesia about what the past couple of years of Arizona basketball were like. Poor defense, questionable work habits, selfish play.

If there hadn’t been those problems, Olson wouldn’t have hired O’Neill in the first place.

So O’Neill is trying to repair Arizona’s ailments, take over as head coach while short a man on the coaching staff, teach new defense, teach new offense, take on the best Pac-10 in history, play the nation’s toughest schedule, deal with key injuries, manage all the uncertainty around the program, and do so with one of the thinnest UA rosters since Olson’s initial teams.

Then there’s the youth. Freshmen and sophomores account for 80.3 percent of the team’s scoring.

Other than that . . . replacing a legend at an elite program is a piece of cake.

“I’m not disappointed with where we are,” said O’Neill, whose Wildcats are 17-12, 7-9 in Pac-10 play, entering Thursday night’s game at Oregon State.

“I know some people might be, but with what we’ve endured, injury-wise and otherwise, we’re at the point where we control our own destiny (for the NCAA Tournament).”

It’s that “otherwise” that is about to reach its climax.

The tempest around the program is howling again, fueled by recent national reports that relied heavily on unnamed sources and rumors.

You’ve heard the highlights:

Olson, on a seasonlong leave of absence, might be undermining O’Neill’s authority by meeting and talking to players.

That O’Neill wouldn’t return as an assistant if Olson is back as the head coach.

That there is a rift between the coaches.

It should be noted right about here that the Tucson Citizen has a policy of using unnamed sources in its stories only under “the strictest of rules” and with the approval of one of two top editors, according to Editor and Publisher Michael A. Chihak.

Some of the information in the national stories has been reported locally, but there are also inferences and deductions in those accounts, based solely on sources, that wouldn’t rise to the paper’s standards.

Not saying those national reports are wrong, but be wary of hidden agendas and exaggeration when unnamed sources are used.

Let’s just say it’s been a trying season.

It’s easy to imagine the players stuck in no man’s land. To whom do they give their loyalties not knowing who is going to be the head coach next season?

That O’Neill has gotten this team to play hard most of the time – which is more frequently than the past two seasons – is to his credit.

What now?

We might not have to deal with speculation for long because Olson’s leave ends this week, clearing the way for the university to discuss his return or his retirement.

What has to be determined to everyone’s satisfaction is if Olson is fully capable of retaking his position – that the undisclosed issues that caused him to miss this season are resolved and won’t recur.

If it’s all clear, then welcome back.

If only things figured to be that easy.

In the absence of truly definitive statements from Olson, it’s impossible to know if he is ready again.

If Olson is not back, then it will be O’Neill’s show. That was the agreement, with Olson’s blessing, when the school announced a succession plan in December.

If it’s O’Neill, I’d like to see what he can do using his recruiting efforts, a full coaching staff, more time teaching his systems and nothing hanging over his head.

At least that way, he gets to fail or succeed while truly being the captain of his own ship.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tusoncitizen.com


May 1, 2007: Former UA assistant Kevin O’Neill is hired as Lute Olson’s assistant for $375,000 a year.

Nov. 4: UA announces Olson is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons.

Dec. 6: Arizona says Olson’s leave of absence will last the season, but Olson vows to return.

Dec. 18: School announces that O’Neill will succeed Olson when the 73-year-old coach retires.

Friday: UA legally can begin to talk to Olson, whose absence fell under the Family Medical Leave Act, about whether he is returning or retiring. Story, 1A

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