Citizen Staff Writer
The smartest thing University of Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood could do is, sometime soon, say that Kevin O’Neill is his guy for the future.
And that’s not just giddy talk with the Wildcats coming off a euphoric win over then-No. 9 Texas A&M. It’s something that should happen.
It wouldn’t hurt the stability of the program. After all, the present is uncertain with head coach Lute Olson still out for personal reasons.
O’Neill may not be the chic pick by many – bigger name coaches perhaps are wanted by some UA fans – but he is Mr. Right for right now.
O’Neill has long had the endorsements of past UA greats Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott and Jud Buechler, among others.
Livengood seems to have a high opinion of O’Neill.
“When Lute decides and determines that he no longer wants to be the head coach and wants to step down, then Kevin is an absolute natural,” he said.
To be certain, this is Olson’s team until he says otherwise.
But O’Neill’s transition back to UA, after being an assistant coach here 20 years ago, has gone well.
Olson, 73, knew that O’Neill would help right the Wildcat ship that went astray the last couple of seasons.
As Olson put it about a month ago at the Pac-10 Conference media day, O’Neill was to be the “hammer” to help with all things he couldn’t do.
Olson left the team Nov. 4, but he is back at practice. He’s thinking about being joining the team in Chicago on Saturday when UA faces Illinois. He did not say if he would coach.
But O’Neill, 50, has filled in admirably in a tough role.
Before this season, when people would ask if O’Neill was the one to replace Olson, I’d just say Arizona would have to go something like 24-7 or better in two consecutive years for O’Neill just to be considered.
But that’s all changed because of what has happened this season.
During all the commotion surrounding Olson’s absence, O’Neill has UA (5-2) ranked No. 22 and playing like it believes in itself.
“He’s done phenomenal – not good, not great but phenomenal,” Livengood said. “The things he’s done are miraculous when you look at the whole situation. It’s unbelievable.”
The team has stayed together, and O’Neill is a big reason, even if he didn’t come to UA just to be Olson’s inevitable replacement.
“That’s not what I’m here for,” said O’Neill, who has been a head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, as well as for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
“I came here to be an assistant coach to Lute,” he said. “The only thing important to me is to work to the best of my ability to help us win.”
UA’s 76-72 overtime loss at Kansas on Nov. 25 proved to the Wildcats that they could play with anyone in the country.
That was followed a week later by the win over A&M in a game in which Arizona trailed by 20 points in the first half.
“This is a team that is not many points – and not but a couple of possessions – from being undefeated,” Livengood said.
It’s still too early to tell how good this team will be next month when Pac-10 league play begins. And it’s too early to know when – or if – this young team will hit a wall, particularly under the heavy demands of taskmaster O’Neill.
But right now, the Wildcats look good and are playing harder and with more purpose than UA teams over the last couple of seasons. That is indisputable.
“I love the way they are playing,” Livengood said. “You’ve got to love the chemistry and the effort. You don’t come back from being 20 points down against a very good team and win by 11 if you don’t have a lot of things going for you. You have people believing and it’s not just by people making a couple of jump shots and making a couple of defensive stops.”
No, it’s intestinal fortitude that the team is showing amid the chaos and uncertainty of a possible Olson return. They are treating everything as business as usual – even if it is not.
O’Neill understands that, and his just-get-it-done approach has rubbed off on the players.
“For me, the most important event is the next event,” O’Neill said, still not wanting to talk about the future. “That’s what my focus is.
“It’s on the players and the program.”
When asked how he thought he’s done to this point under the circumstances, O’Neill quickly said, “I’m lucky this is not my first rodeo.
“I’ve been coaching 30 years and, from my many experiences in NBA and my college situations, I’ve learned you go out and do the best job you can do. That’s what I intend to do.”
Steve Rivera’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Arizona (5-2) vs. Illinois (5-2)
When: 10 a.m. Saturday
Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM