LOS ANGELES — Kevin O’Neill took over Southern California’s troubled basketball program on Monday, promising to try to win next season under the weight of an NCAA investigation and the departures of three starters and several recruits.
"There’s nothing here that says you can’t win and that’s why I like this job," he said after being introduced by athletic director Mike Garrett at a campus news conference.
Both O’Neill and Garrett refused to answer questions about the coach’s contract at the private university, including its length.
"Hopefully, he’s here forever," Garrett said.
The 52-year-old coach returns to the college ranks after spending last season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. He is also a former coach of the Toronto Raptors and is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal.
"My attraction to the job was simple, it’s USC," O’Neill said. "They major in graduation and championships here, two pretty good things."
The titles, however, belong to the powerhouse football program and to sports other than basketball, which was on the upswing until Tim Floyd resigned suddenly on June 9 amid allegations that he paid to have O.J. Mayo play for him at USC.
In Floyd’s four-year tenure, the Trojans reached the NCAA tournament the last three seasons and won the school’s first Pac-10 tournament title in March.
"I want to be able to continue the good things that Tim is doing here and has done here," O’Neill said. "He’s really done a nice job with the program."
O’Neill said he had no qualms about taking over during tough times. He said Garrett told him everything he needs to know about the past.
"I really didn’t care what had happened and we didn’t get into detail because that’s not my place. I was taking the job no matter what. I wanted the job from the beginning because it’s USC," he said.
"The fact that there’s an investigation going on never changed my view of the university at all. We’re going to deal with whatever comes out of this and be positive and move forward."
But O’Neill would be affected by any fallout.
If the NCAA can prove Floyd paid to have Mayo delivered to USC, that would be considered a major violation. The Trojans could be forced to forfeit victories, and they could face recruiting restrictions and lose scholarships.
The football team also is under NCAA investigation for alleged improprieties involving Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush.
"We want to get it over," Garrett said of the twin investigations. "We can only go as fast as they (NCAA) want to go."
The ongoing investigation, along with the departures of starters DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett for the NBA and several recruits asking out of their commitments, may have put off others Garrett reportedly sought for the job, including Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon, UNLV’s Lon Kruger and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy.
"I wasn’t her first choice, either," O’Neill said, nodding in the direction of his wife of three years. "If people did shy away from this job for some reason, I’m glad they did.
"I wasn’t shying away from this job at all. There’s challenges in every job and we’re going to meet the challenges."
Floyd hasn’t addressed the allegations that he paid US$1,000 cash in 2007 to an associate of Mayo, who played one season at USC before leaving early for the NBA.
"Tim was not forced out," Garrett said. "It was a surprise that he resigned."
Floyd has kept a low-profile since his resignation, although O’Neill said the former coach called him after he accepted the job and spoke positively of his time at USC. O’Neill said he didn’t discuss the USC job with Mayo, who plays for the Grizzlies.
O’Neill returns to the Pac-10 after serving as interim coach at Arizona in 2008 when Lute Olson took a leave of absence. O’Neill led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record and the school’s 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the nation’s longest active streak.
He was designated Olson’s permanent successor, but when the Hall of Famer returned that spring he announced O’Neill would no longer be part of the program.
"I went there to be an assistant, and the next thing I knew I was the interim head coach and I was the successor coach, then I was gone," he said.
"I learned a lot during that year. I think experiences like that really toughen you up as a coach and really make you appreciate good experiences. There were some trying times there."
However, O’Neill said he was treated fairly in Tucson.
"Lute deserved the opportunity to come back and be the coach. He had earned that over a Hall of Fame career," he said. "A lot of people said a lot of things after I left, I didn’t say anything.
"I don’t have any ill will or any bad feelings whatsoever, plus I ended up in a better job."
O’Neill is 171-180 in 12 seasons as a college head coach, including stints at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern.
Along the way, he’s developed a reputation for being fiery both on and off the court. But he went on the offensive, bringing the issue up first.
"Contrary to popular demand, I’m not Darth Vader. You would think I was slaying people every time you turn around," he said.
"Over the years, I’ve been in situations where not all the players always like the coach. Well, guess what? The coaches don’t like all the players sometimes either, especially when you’re in rebuilding situations.