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June 22, 2009The USC men's basketball program caught the stench of optimism for the first time since a salacious allegation, a slew of decommitments and the loss of a handful of players to the NBA shook the team to its core.
Monday, a new leader emerged.
USC athletics director Mike Garrett introduced Kevin O'Neill as the new men's basketball coach to the media and the Trojan family, and the man who was labeled as a "disciplinarian" and whose delivered his fair share of four-letter rants did his best to charm.
He said he would be opening all practices to the media. He offered up his cell phone. He cracked jokes.
After introducing his wife, Roberta, O'Neill said, "There won't be any questions about recruiting I trust. I can recruit, obviously."
While an ongoing NCAA investigation may have steered some top names away from taking the job, O'Neill said he couldn't wait to sign on - sanctions or not.
"I really didn't care what had happened. We didn't get into details. That's not my place," O'Neill said. "I would've taken the job no matter what from the beginning because it's USC. It's a prime opportunity athletically and academically.
"The fact that there's an investigation going on never changed my view of the university. We're going to deal with whatever comes out of this and be positive. We'll move forward."
Now, it's on O'Neill to convince recruits the same thing.
USC's 2009 recruiting class, at one time one of the nation's best, is now virtually empty. O'Neill said he won't just hand out roster spots.
"I don't want to take guys to take guys," he said. "I don't think that makes sense. I don't want to put us in a position where we're tied to guys who can't help us. We're going to need better players to compete for a Pac-10 championship.
"I'd rather have less players this year and get 2010 and 2011 rolling right."
O'Neill took time to address his reputation for being a defensive-minded coach and for being a brute when dealing with players.
O'Neill said he knows players haven't always liked him, but he hasn't always liked players. He said he only demands his players be on time and "not be jerks."
"Contrary to popular (opinion), I'm not Darth Vader," O'Neill said. "You'd think I was slaying people every time I turned around.
"To me, expecting guys to go to class, to be on time, to work hard, to treat their teammates with respect and be responsible, if that's being too hard, then I'm too hard."
If those expectations for his players are met, O'Neill thinks his team can succeed sooner than later.
"I think we have good players here. I think we have a good group of core guys," O'Neill said. "It would be my expectation that as soon as we hit the practice floor that we're thinking about nothing short of being in the NCAA Tournament."
Garrett wouldn't disclose the terms of the contract, but both he and O'Neill said they had hopes that the partnerships would last for an extended period of time.
"Everyone I talked to wasn't shying away from USC. It wasn't a selling job. It was about finding the right fit," Garrett said. " When I started talking to him, he's the one I wanted. He's what we needed to have."
Players like Leonard Washington wandered in to the press conference to hear what O'Neill had to say.
"I'm in wait-and-see mode," Washington said. "That was my first time seeing him in person. It sounds like he's going to come in and try to keep the program going - even pick it up some."
Washington said he's not considering transferring, and he'll be one of O'Neill's top returners in 2009.
"I'm just worried about the guys who are here and do the best job we can to help them compete the best way we can," O'Neill said. "This is a competitive group. I think these guys will play good basketball every single day. I think they'll work hard.
"And, I think they'll surprise some people."
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