THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES — Kevin O’Neill took over a troubled Southern California basketball team, getting the Trojans back to the NCAA tournament after NCAA issues kept them out in his first season while producing winning records twice in 3 1/2 years. It wasn’t enough.
He was fired on Monday, with the Trojans 7-10 overall and 2-2 in the Pac-12 after splitting their road trip last weekend.
"We just didn’t win enough last year and this year. That’s what this business is," O’Neill told The Associated Press by phone. "We tried to do as well as we could, tried to get the program to the highest level. My goal every day going in there was to try to win a national title."
He had a 48-65 record at the school known primarily for its powerful football program after going 6-26 last year while setting a USC record for losses.
Athletic director Pat Haden said the program needed new leadership.
"Despite a nice road win in our last game, I felt it was best to make a change now, with most of the Pac-12 season still ahead of us, in order to re-energize our team," he said.
O’Neill was hired by Haden’s predecessor, Mike Garrett, who said at the time, "Hopefully he’s here forever." O’Neill took the USC job after spending a season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Nothing in this business surprises me," O’Neill said, adding that he and Haden "really didn’t have any discussions other than how the team is doing."
Veteran assistant Bob Cantu will serve as interim coach while USC searches for a successor. Cantu took over for O’Neill during a Pac-10 tournament semifinal game against Arizona in 2010-11 when the coach was suspended after getting into a verbal confrontation with a Wildcats booster. He has remained on the staff through four coaching changes and is the longest tenured assistant in the Pac-12.
"Couldn’t be more excited and anxious to get started with (hashtag) coachbobcantu," tweeted senior centre James Blaszyk.
The Trojans lost at Colorado before winning at Utah to snap a 14-game road skid over the weekend. USC has lost nine of its last 13 games, which included a five-game skid.
"There’s been a lot of challenges in it but I really enjoyed my time," O’Neill told the AP. "I’m thankful for my opportunity. I’m going to cheer for them every day."
Upon arriving at USC in June 2009, O’Neill had to deal with the fallout from an ongoing NCAA investigation and school-imposed sanctions involving star O.J. Mayo, who played one season under Tim Floyd before leaving for the NBA.
The Trojans went 16-14, including a sweep of crosstown rival UCLA, and were in the hunt for the conference title until the final two weeks of the season. Sanctions imposed by the school in response to the NCAA investigation prohibited them from post-season play.
The next season, O’Neill lost three starters and four of his top six players from the rotation, but he guided the Trojans to a 19-15 record and an NCAA tournament berth. They lost in the first round to Virginia Commonwealth. That team included Nikola Vucevic, a first-round draft pick who now plays for the Orlando Magic.
Last season, the Trojans were hard-hit by injury, leaving O’Neill with just six scholarship players for nearly half the season who managed to keep the team in most every game. The biggest blow was losing point guard Jio Fontan, who tore his ACL after scoring 57 points in two exhibition games in Brazil. Forward Aaron Fuller (shoulder) and big man Dewayne Dedmon (torn MCL) also went down with season-ending injuries at different points.
"It got really pronounced because we didn’t have freshmen or sophomores when I got here. Those classes were blank," said O’Neill, who dipped into the ranks of junior college players and transfers to fill out the roster. "I thought our team was starting to come around and play better."
He had a full complement of 13 scholarship players who were healthy this season.
"It was hard for me to evaluate him as a head coach until this year when he had enough players and veterans to compete," Haden said.
O’Neill said he’s given no thought to his immediate future.
"Take a little time off, chill out a little bit," he said. "I might go to New York and visit my dad. I really don’t have any regrets, none at all."
O’Neill, who turns 56 on Jan. 24, was hired by coach Lute Olson as an assistant at Arizona before the 2007-08 season, and became interim coach when Olson took a medical leave of absence.
O’Neill led the Wildcats to a 19-15 record and the school’s 24th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, at the time 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.
O’Neill had previous head coaching jobs at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. He has a 219-245 record in the college ranks.