In many ways, Kevin O'Neill has always been on the hot seat at USC.
When hired by Mike Garrett just over a year ago, it's safe to say that O'Neill was never thought of as the long term replacement for the departing Tim Floyd. Big names like Jamie Dixon have always been thought of as the right guy to lead a Trojan hoops program - now supposedly an "it job" with the construction of the Galen Center. Nobody was clamoring for a guy like O'Neill.
But because of an NCAA investigation, which was ongoing at the time, nobody was eager to succeed Floyd at USC. Luckily, Garrett found a guy in O'Neill, who was simply an assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies, and thus, would be interested in any available coaching gig - even if it meant moving to Siberia.
But even though O'Neill was a last resort in many respects, he was also a seemingly perfect fit at the time. With a postseason ban and heavy departures leaving the roster depleted, it was tough to imagine any coach coming in and leading the Trojans above the .500 mark. So they hired a coach who would at least keep the program's nose clean. But O'Neill didn't do just that. He led the Trojans to an 18-14 mark, surpassing all expectations and causing many members of the Trojan faithful to start drinking the K.O. kool aid.
But with 2011 on the horizon, the future for O'Neill at USC is still rather hazy. The program is now eligible for the postseason, and a year from now, will no longer be on probation and be able to offer the maximum number of scholarships. In short, USC is now an attractive job again.
So does the fact that the USC basketball coaching gig looks a little more prominent nowadays place current head coach Kevin O'Neill on the hot seat?
It absolutely does.
Since the construction of the Galen Center in 2006, its charm has slowly begun to erode. What became a major selling point to coaches in the middle of the decade (a new on-campus arena) is becoming less and less significant annually. In five-to-ten years, the novelty of Galen will have worn off, and 'SC's power to attract a big-name coach will likely have declined as well.
In turn, with Galen still relatively new, and with the NCAA sanctions now in the rear-view mirror, USC basketball is once again an attractive Orange County blonde bombshell as opposed to a single mother who has put five kids through school already.
And that means Pat Haden and USC need to capitalize on its basketball "youth" moving forward.
They don't have a 3-5 year window to wait and see what O'Neill "does with this opportunity." Not to sound like a Kentucky basketball fan, but O'Neill needs to prove capable of guiding teams to the postseason relatively soon. And by postseason, I mean the NCAA Tournament, not the NIT.
What I fear, however, is that I may be asking too much, because 2011 could be a rocky season in the Pac-10 for USC with the loss of its top three perimeter players in Mike Gerrity, Marcus Johnson, and Dwight Lewis. Earlier this month, Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News echoed some of these concerns:
7. USC (6th): The Trojans lost three of their top-four scorers, their point guard and the their best all-around player. Yes, they should have one of the top frontcourts in the conference with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, but so much depends on Fordham transfer Jio Fontan to prop up an otherwise barren backcourt. Fontan was the A-10 freshman of the year in 2008-09. But he isn't eligible until December and won't have played for a year.
The fact is that O'Neill is depending on freshman guards Bryce Jones and Maurice Jones to essentially save his job. Granted, it's doubtful that O'Neill would be canned after a sub-par 2011 campaign just so Haden could insert his own guy at the helm. However, you have to think that if O'Neill is afforded the opportunity to bring in two recruiting classes and has the chance to see them compete as freshmen and sophomores, that he will be expected to produce results.
And if 2011 or 2012 do not result in an NCAA Tournament appearance, expect a pink slip to find itself upon O'Neill's desk.
But if he wins, he keeps his job. It's as simple as that.
The problem lies in the fact that O'Neill has never been much of a winner previously in his coaching career. At his last three coaching gigs, his performances have been underwhelming strictly when it came to wins and losses. At Arizona, he finished just four wins above .500. At Northwestern, he went 30-56, and when he was on Rocky Top (I guess we like former Tennessee coaches), he led the Vols to a 36-47 mark over three years.
None of that inspires much confidence that 2011 or 2012 will be banner seasons for 'SC.
Granted, I hope I'm wrong, but with a new athletic director at the helm, the pressure is on O'Neill to prove that he's the right guy for the job.
Based on his track record, that's going to take a lot of convincing.