Ugh. I never thought I’d be writing two posts in the span of two weeks defending Kevin O’Neill. Let me just make it clear, yet again, that I think O’Neill was a bad hire and I have never understood the infatuation many people have with his skills as a head coach. Nonetheless, he was hired by USC and until yesterday was the head coach of its basketball program. I’m also not philosophically-opposed to mid-season firings. There are reasons to relieve a coach of his duties mid-season that are healthy for both the coach and the program he is being separated from. (An expanded defense is here.)
But I have to throw the flag on USC AD Pat Haden for this move. A source reported to Goodman that the reason for O’Neill’s dismissal was that O’Neill had lost his players. You know, they had a funny way of showing it, having just won at Utah by 17 to even their Pac-12 record at 2-2. Utah is no juggernaut, sure, but they hadn’t lost a game by more than seven this season, including their most recent game against UCLA, and road games against Arizona, BYU, and Arizona State. Imagine if the players were still buying into to what O’Neill was offering.
Then there’s interim coach Bob Cantu offering this:
Cantu, who recruited many of the players on this season’s team, suggested that USC played a pre-conference schedule that was too difficult. Six of USC’s losses have come against teams that have been nationally ranked. “We over scheduled,” Cantu said. “It was very, very difficult to play that schedule.”
Is there any evidence out there that indicates that the difficulty of a team’s non-conference schedule has any impact on their conference performance? (Seriously, if there is, send it my way.) Of course it was difficult to play that schedule. You were playing against good teams. It will also be difficult to play Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA.
USC’s own performance doesn’t suggest there’s much power in confidence-building wins. The easiest game on the Trojans’ schedule was against UC Riverside. USC won 70-26, leading at one point 63-18. However, bubbling with the confidence earned from such a beat-down, they turned around and lost to UC Irvine in their next game. Season opening tune-ups against Coppin State and Long Beach State were followed by a 94-64 humiliation at the hands of Illinois. But the Trojans followed that up with an overtime win against Texas.
You can connect the dots from overscheduling to losing the players to firing the coach, but it all seems heavily contrived. USC was expected to be a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team this season, and that’s about where they’re at. USC was meeting reasonable expectations that could have been set last March, when Haden elected to retain O’Neill for this season. And if O’Neill is being fired essentially for overscheduling and shattering his players’ confidence, why wouldn’t that confidence be rising following a successful road trip? Does firing the coach improve the team’s confidence as it prepares for a home game against Oregon, a game in which it would otherwise have a reasonable chance to win? If you believe in the power of confidence, a win against the Ducks would have set the Trojans on a course for greater things. There isn’t any risk in letting that play out.
Of course, Pat Haden may have been just following protocol, too. You have to go back to Stan Morrison’s firing after the 1986 season to find the last time USC let go of its coach conventionally. You probably don’t remember Morrison, but that move resulted in a couple of guys named Gathers and Kimble transferring from the program.
This move is unlikely to result in such an exodus. The lesson from this coaching move is that if you’re USC’s next coach, be advised to not schedule so tough. Hide your flaws as long as possible behind meaningless wins. It may not make you a better team, but it will give you a better record, and Kevin O’Neill’s firing serves as an example of how that’s a more effective way to preserve your job.