LOS ANGELES — J.T. Terrell had good moments with Kevin O’Neill and not so good ones. He went from being USC’s leading scorer this season to spending entire games on the bench.
Terrell is a junior guard who is in his first season on the Trojans basketball team after transferring from Wake Forest, but he summed up his coach as well as anyone Monday, a few hours after O’Neill was fired.
“KO, any day of the week, is just priceless,” Terrell said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
USC has a record of 7-10 this season, O’Neill’s fourth. Overall, O’Neill was 48-65 with the Trojans after replacing Tim Floyd. He spent his first years trying to bring USC back from NCAA penalties stemming from the recruitment of former Trojan O.J. Mayo.
It was a tumultuous era.
O’Neill, 56, was suspended by USC after getting into a verbal altercation with an Arizona fan in a lobby of a Los Angeles hotel during the 2011 Pac-10 tournament. And just two weeks ago, after the Trojans defeated Dayton, he called his team “an immature group, A to Z,” and described the two technical fouls earned in that game by senior Eric Wise as “unobliterated immaturity.”
“We have too many guys with too many issues,” he complained.
O’Neill knew he was on a hot seat this season, but the timing of USC’s move was a surprise. The Trojans are coming off a 76-59 win over Utah on Saturday, a victory in which junior forward Dewayne Dedmon said, “We played our best basketball of the year.”
Bob Cantu, who is in his 12th year as an assistant at USC, was named the interim coach by Athletic Director Pat Haden.
“I want to start out by saying that KO is a great friend of mine and a great coach,” Cantu said. “An unfortunate decision was made today. It was a complete shock when I got the call this morning. My job is to provide leadership and energy and to have us focused to play Oregon on Thursday.”
The Trojans, who have 14 regular-season games left plus at least one game in the Pac-12 tournament, are 2-2 in conference play and tied with California for sixth place. They play Oregon on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Galen Center. The Ducks, ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press media poll this week, have a record of 14-2 overall, 3-0 in conference play and tied for second place, a half game behind UCLA.
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.”
USC players took a business-like approach to the news.
“As a player, you just go with the punches,” point guard Jio Fontan said.
Said Wise: “It’s just something we have to go through and deal with.”
O’Neill said he received a text message from Haden on Sunday night asking him to meet with Haden and Steve Lopes, chief operating and financial officer of the USC athletic program, at 8 a.m. Monday.
“Did I know what it was about?” O’Neill said. “In this business you always have that sense. Nothing surprises me.”
O’Neill was a head coach at four Division I colleges before he came to USC and was also head coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for one season as well as an assistant for four other NBA teams. He said he wasn’t ready for retirement.
“I’ve done this for 33 years,” he said. “I’m probably not taking up flying planes or something. If I did I’d probably crash it.”
Haden was not available for comment. In a statement he said, “I would like to thank Kevin O’Neill for his four years of service to USC. He took over a program under difficult circumstances because of our NCAA issues and, despite that, he was able to do some good things.
“It was hard for me to evaluate him as a head coach until this year when he had enough players and veterans to compete. As the season progressed, it became evident to me that we needed new leadership in our men’s basketball program. 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.”