Kevin O’Neill doesn’t deserve boos in his return to McKaleby Anthony Gimino on Mar. 05, 2010, under Sports
When Arizona plays USC on Saturday morning, there will be a head coach on the sideline who has been known to use salty language, stubbornly refuses to play anything except a man-to-man defense, sometimes burns timeouts early in games and shields his assistants from the media because he wants to be “voice of the program.”
And, oh yeah, Kevin O’Neill will be there, too.
OK, OK … USC’s O’Neill and Arizona’s Sean Miller aren’t exactly the same kind of coach, but they are the most alike of the four coaches the Wildcats have had in the past four seasons, although their circumstances could not be more different.
Miller has the fans’ patience and trust, lowered expectations, and he doesn’t have the shadow of Lute Olson over his shoulder. He was Arizona’s choice after the school conducted a search for several months.
O’Neill was at Arizona when all hell was breaking loose. He was Mr. Right Now. He became the interim head coach after Olson’s stunning and unexplained leave of absence. Everything was a colossal mess. O’Neill literally had Olson looking over his shoulder. Was he coming back or wasn’t he?
Fans were aching to have the Coach Olson they knew and loved back on the court. But that Olson wasn’t ever coming back. We know that now; nobody knew it then.
To me, that 2007-08 season was really about two things — change and uncertainty. Two qualities that rarely bring out the best behavior or the best judgment in anybody.
But the story of the 2007-08 season needed villain … and, for many fans, O’Neill was it.
Which makes his first return Saturday to McKale Center all the more interesting.
How will the fans react?
“I would hope that they would boo,” O’Neill said with a chuckle Friday afternoon as he brought the Trojans to practice on the UA campus.
“Aren’t they supposed to boo all the opposing coaches? That’s what everybody does. You know, when you go on the road, that’s just the way it is. The reaction won’t matter to me one way or another …
“I can’t control what the reception is going to be. No matter what the reception is, I have great memories of being here. I have lots of friends here and have had two great stints here.”
If you require a villain for the story, I think it should be Olson. That’s not easy to say, but he kept everybody in the dark about his illness, and people made bad decisions and followed individual agendas based, at least in part, on lack of information.
The toxic stew was not of O’Neill’s making. He once explained the difficulty of his task by saying something like it was trying to jump into a truck going 60 mph.
One more thing: O’Neill had better talent on hand than Miller but had to navigate possibly the toughest Pac-10 in history. Miller has to wade through the shallow end in perhaps the worst Pac-10 ever.
The degree of difficulty doesn’t absolve O’Neill for what he did or didn’t do that season. Clearly, he wasn’t the right man at the right time. But I’m not sure how many coaches could have been.
To me, he’s no villain.
In fact, one of the things I admire about O’Neill is that he doesn’t care about the past, what might have been or what other people think of him. It is what it is, he likes to say. He doesn’t waste a second worrying about anything that’s out of his control.
“I had a great time when I was here,” he said. “It’s a great place. It’s full of tradition. I have good memories here.”
So boo him, cheer him, love him, hate him. He’s a polarizing figure, and probably everybody who has known him a little at all has a KO story that’s not fit to print.
Also know this: He had his detractors but also his ardent supporters within the athletic department, from those who had more of a clue than most about what was really going on behind the scenes. Would several members of the athletic department have made it a point to see him Friday as his team practiced at Richard Jefferson Gym if they thought he really screwed over the program?
Don’t you think O’Neill could have raised holy hell about Arizona not following through on its promise that he would be the next head coach at UA? Don’t you think he could have at least tried to set the department in flames?
It might be fun to boo him, but he doesn’t deserve it.
“I’m comfortable with what I did when I was here,” O’Neill said. “Things all happen for a reason. I’m happy with where I’m at. … I’m more than happy at USC.”
And Arizona is more than happy with Miller.
So, yeah, maybe things do happen for a reason.