Pat Summitt was wrapping up practice Monday at Pratt Pavilion when a scruffy-looking guy entered the gym.
She didn’t call security. She embraced the visitor in the funky black sweat-clothes and ball cap.
“I love Kevin,’’ Summitt said. “We had a great relationship.
“I begged him not to leave.’’
Kevin O’Neill is back in Thompson-Boling Arena tonight, the building from which he made a pre-dawn exit in March 1997 to catch a plane to become Northwestern’s new basketball coach.
A lot has gone down in the nearly 14 years since. That applies to both the Vols and O’Neill.
He’s back with a pretty good Southern Cal team, whose stingy defense will pose problems for coach Bruce Pearl’s suddenly-struggling Vols.
If you missed O’Neill’s tenure in Knoxville, well, let’s just say it was interesting.
He arrived in 1994, taking over a program that had hit bottom in coach Wade Houston’s final season (5-22). Before he coached his first game — to a modest crowd of 8,014 — O’Neill had purged much of the existing roster.
After a 90-50 loss in 1996 to eventual NCAA champion Kentucky, the ever-quotable O’Neill termed it apples playing against oranges. Reviewing that season, O’Neill reported that aside from 7-footer Steve Hamer there were only two other dunks the entire campaign.
Defense was his bedrock. Four of Tennessee’s five lowest-scoring games of the shot-clock era were on O’Neill’s watch.
If his team’s weren’t always entertaining, he made up the difference. After UT’s first win at Vanderbilt since 1987 he stood on a chair and gestured to the taunting Vandy fans.
His final game was an SEC tournament loss, sealing his bottom line at 36-47. A few days later he was gone, despite the pleading of UT bigwigs, including Summitt.
“If I had it to do over I probably would have stayed,’’ O’Neill said. “If I was 57 instead of 37 I probably would have made a better decision.
“I think we did a good job when we were here. We did the right things. If I’d been more mature I would have stayed and gone through the parade and all that.’’
His parade reference alluded to what happened after his departure.
Inheriting the talent that O’Neill recruited, Jerry Green had a springboard to coach the Vols to 89 victories and four NCAA tournaments from 1998-2001.
O’Neill was a fanatical recruiter. Despite not having a lot to sell besides playing time, his three classes included four eventual 1,200-point scorers: Brandon Wharton, Tony Harris, C.J. Black and Isiah Victor. He also shrewdly signed Del Baker, Vincent Yarbrough’s older brother by a year.
Why leave that kind of momentum? Transcript issues led to UT holding out Victor as a redshirt in 1996-97, creating a rift with athletic director Doug Dickey that couldn’t be repaired.
“I told him, ‘This will pass,’ ’’ said Summitt, “but Kevin, like all of us, he’s got a little stubborn side.’’
Summitt wasn’t the only Tennessee icon who visited with O’Neill on Monday. Legendary UT broadcaster John Ward paid his respects.
The epitome of Southern gentility, Ward had a fond relationship with the brash Northerner who was notorious for his foul-mouthed (but humorous) rants.
“I’ve never used profanity,’’ Ward said. “He was poetic.’’
What might have happened had O’Neill stayed to develop and coach the talent he assembled can forever be debated. Regrets, he said, are pointless.
“(The decision to leave) took me on a great journey,’’ O’Neill said, “through the NBA, which I loved, and everything else.
“I’ve enjoyed all my time but I enjoyed my time here a lot.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.