It’s been a terrible year for USC sports fans.
The football team that was rated No. 1 at the start of the season slipped so far it wasn’t even rated at the finish. And it was lethargic in a Sun Bowl defeat. There was speculation about the job status of Coach Lane Kiffin but so far he hasn’t been replaced.
But basketball coach Kevin O’Neill isn’t as fortunate. In the middle of his fourth season with the Trojans O’Neill was fired this week.
The Trojans won their last game but that merely ended a 14-game road losing streak. USC’s overall record this season is 7-10.
After struggling with an inferior roster in O’Neill’s first three seasons he upgraded the talent level by welcoming a bevy of transfers. It turned out the newcomers had trouble adjusting to their roles.
“It was difficult to evaluate Kevin in his first three seasons because of the talent level, but now it’s become evident to me we need new leadership in the mens’ basketball program,” said athletic director Pat Haden.
Bob Cantu, a 38-year-old Trojan assistant coach, will replace O’Neill for the rest of the season.
USC hoped to upgrade its basketball status when it built the Galen Center. After playing for so many years in the Sports Arena USC seemed ready to compete with UCLA and other conference championship contenders.
The previous coach, Tim Floyd, did recruit heralded high school star O.J. Mayo and brought excitement to the program. But in 2009 Floyd resigned under the cloud of NCAA sanctions.
O’Neill took over, and despite losing an entire year of recruiting, he led the Trojans to a winning season.
It went downhill from there and the Trojans went 6-26 last season, winning only one conference game.
To complicate the situation, arch-rival UCLA has recovered from a dreadful start to be respectable this season. And the wide gap between the Bruins and Trojans in basketball that has existed for many years is apparent again.
Desperate for help, O’Neill recruited 7-foot center Dwayne Dedmon for last season and talked about the likelihood Dedmon would be coveted by NBA teams in time.
That may be, but Dedmon has had very little basketball experience and is currently far away from being a highly significant college player. He didn’t play high school basketball until his senior season. He then played only one year at Antelope Valley College.
In a more successful program Dedmon could have progressed gradually in limited playing time. But O’Neill didn’t have that luxury. So Dedmon had to learn on the court as the losses mounted. This season O’Neill welcomed a backup, Omar Oraby, who transferred from Rice. But it was too late to turn the program around.
O’Neill appeared to be a good choice when he was hired. He was an experienced college coach and had spent the previous season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.
He was hired by then-athletic director Mike Garrett, who said:
“Hopefully he’ll be here forever.”
But O’Neill knew better.
“We didn’t win enough,” he said. “That’s the nature of this business.”