Mike Strange: Kevin O’Neill wishes he had stayed

Mike Strange
Kevin O’Neill was known for his foul language at Tennessee, but he didn’t run afoul of the NCAA during his coaching tenure in Knoxville.

Photo by News Sentinel

Kevin O’Neill was known for his foul language at Tennessee, but he didn’t run afoul of the NCAA during his coaching tenure in Knoxville.

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.

His first squad was as short-handed as Derek Dooley’s current football team. In a game at Arkansas, 6-foot walk-on Clint Newman briefly guarded Corliss Williamson, a bearish future NBA forward.

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 strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 24

OrangePride writes:

Ah, those youthful decisions that, at the time seem to be right or ones we will "make right," are often looked back on with at least a degree of regret. I guess we almost all have those. Nonetheless, it is what it is and O'Neill is as far on the other side of the world from UT as one can get......and at hated USC at that! So, I wish him NO good luck tomorrow or for as long as he is at SC. Is that uncharitable in this the Season of Peace? Oh well....just call me the Grinch that Roared...lol. GO VOLS, BEAT USC!!

VolunteerLifer writes:

He left us over a an insignificant item like that? Screw him.

Mule_Days_King writes:

He can s**t in one hand...well you know the rest.

tennrich1 writes:

I once had to leave a practice with my 8 year old because of the language he used...It was truly disgusting....completely over the top....

FatElvis writes:

The guy can flat coach D. Someone needs to put a top 10 ranking in front of USC so we'll get up for this game.

eduardo writes:

We wouldve played in at least 2 Final 4s and win 1 of em. Book it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

tnvol4ever writes:

Thanks coach for turning around the Wade Houston nightmare. Great coach even better recruiter.
Are you still getting Christmas cards from Jerry Green?

LaneBrains writes:

We wish we would have stayed as well.

CLK, Monte and Ed

tennrich1 writes:

in response to UofTNFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

UHHHHH???? Great coach, defensively and great recruiter....But if you cant carry your kids to enjoy a practice without the verbal assaults then there is a serious problem...We wouldnt tolerate that out of our employees, family members etc...or at least most wouldnt...but for some reason there are a few...not many...who seem content with blasphemousness, idiotic, mindless dribble we call profanity when it comes to our athletes, coaches etc.....Again, great defensive mind though...BTW, Oneill has admitted as much and said he's embarrassed now at the language he used and has tried to tone it down.... Actually I think this is one reason there is a certain disconnect when it comes to some athletes and fans...Most normal people just don't use this type of language...some do...but not most...and it's frankly hard to ID with those who do...just a thought....

johnlg00 writes:

in response to TennVolAlum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

His arms and legs were pretty long, too! He had a LOT of potential that was never, IMHO, properly developed and exploited while he was here. He was a pretty nice guy, too. I have often wondered what became of him.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to tennrich1:

UHHHHH???? Great coach, defensively and great recruiter....But if you cant carry your kids to enjoy a practice without the verbal assaults then there is a serious problem...We wouldnt tolerate that out of our employees, family members etc...or at least most wouldnt...but for some reason there are a few...not many...who seem content with blasphemousness, idiotic, mindless dribble we call profanity when it comes to our athletes, coaches etc.....Again, great defensive mind though...BTW, Oneill has admitted as much and said he's embarrassed now at the language he used and has tried to tone it down.... Actually I think this is one reason there is a certain disconnect when it comes to some athletes and fans...Most normal people just don't use this type of language...some do...but not most...and it's frankly hard to ID with those who do...just a thought....

No question O'Neill's language was a bit of an, uh, acquired taste that didn't appeal to everybody. Can't say I was all that fond of it, either, but he WAS and is a pretty witty guy for all that.

On the other hand, one of his former players told me that he was "one of the most relentlessly negative people I ever met" in handling the players. I have always wondered how he managed to recruit the talented players he was getting toward the end.

I get the definite impression that he has matured and mellowed somewhat in the meantime. He even seems to admit to such himself. Still, I am glad he is at USCw and I hope he stays there! And I SURELY hope the Vols play better against him than they did at their place last year. They could hardly do worse...could they? GO VOLS!!! BEAT THE RUBBERS!!!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to TennVolAlum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Thanks! I don't claim to have known him well, but I always liked him and surely wish him well. I also think occasionally of one of his teammates, Rashard Lee. Lee was playing in Europe the last I heard and doing rather well.

onevol writes:

This guy is a joke. He is only a one dimensional coach and defense is all he cares about. I will never forget watching the Vols in Arkansas one Saturday afternoon and getting spanked 26-0 after about 7 minutes into the game.

Yes, he could recruit, but we would have been in the same situation with him as with Kiffin in football. In the NCAA doghouse had he stayed.

He is just like Kiffin in that he ran away as fast as he could from UT and the SEC.

jakethevolguy writes:

What I remember most about the O'Neill coached UT teams is that they couldn't inbounds a ball under pressure to save their butts. I hope it holds true whith his USC team. lol GBO!!

volmot writes:

Uh the reason he left had to do with another woman. His wife insisted that they leave on the first train out of Knoxville thus the crappy Northwestern job. Unfortunately for Kevin the other woman followed him to Chicago where he took up where he left off. One day he came home and found the wife and kid gone and the house bare and I mean bare not a chair, bed, rug, drapes nothing but a "go to hell" note. Before you go crazy this is not an internet rumor. Ive heard it discussed on the radio by a certain Nashville newspaperman who had a show for over 20 years.

Colliervol writes:

Ma said if I couldn't say anything nice then I just should keep quiet.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to onevol:

This guy is a joke. He is only a one dimensional coach and defense is all he cares about. I will never forget watching the Vols in Arkansas one Saturday afternoon and getting spanked 26-0 after about 7 minutes into the game.

Yes, he could recruit, but we would have been in the same situation with him as with Kiffin in football. In the NCAA doghouse had he stayed.

He is just like Kiffin in that he ran away as fast as he could from UT and the SEC.

He is not and was not a joke. He was a very good recruiter and a very good defensive coach. He was poor at offense but in his tenure in college coaching he has not had any violations with the NCAA. That is one of the reasons he got the USC job. To say he would have gotten us into trouble with the NCAA is without substance.

informedintennessee writes:

in response to UofTNFan:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Forget taking an 8 yr old to practice, you could not take an 8 yr old to a game when O'Neill was here! I don't remember his tenure here quite as fondly as he does. Interesting that he talks about how he wished he would have stayed....as I recall, he was very close to being shown the door. Dickey hated him, the fans near the bench (i.e. big money) complained constantly about how unpleasant it was to hear his mouth, and TBA was empty. Glad he is gone!

ect1983 writes:

in response to volmot:

Uh the reason he left had to do with another woman. His wife insisted that they leave on the first train out of Knoxville thus the crappy Northwestern job. Unfortunately for Kevin the other woman followed him to Chicago where he took up where he left off. One day he came home and found the wife and kid gone and the house bare and I mean bare not a chair, bed, rug, drapes nothing but a "go to hell" note. Before you go crazy this is not an internet rumor. Ive heard it discussed on the radio by a certain Nashville newspaperman who had a show for over 20 years.

Sorry Volmot...That fiction you "heard" on the radio is absolute B.S. I know, because I knew both he and his wife about as well as anyone in Knoxville other than the late Ed Huster. When she left, it was face to face, and her brother from Tucson was with her..Why she left ? Who cares...His side, her side, and the truth..Not that anyone EVER knew Kevin well....but I sat with him many times at our kids games (his son, Sean, became a collegiate baseball pitcher at Santa Clara), was over at his house (our kids were best friends), including the last weekend. He was on the phone the whole weekend with Northwestern due to his one-sided feud with Doug Dickey...the story above about I. Victor was one of many rifts (everything from the cell phone bills to recruiting budget)I wont get into the extracurriculars, but the other woman had nada to do with moving; Kevin's goal ALWAYS was to coach in the NBA; Martha O'Neill DID hate the south and being a big fish in a small pond.
As far as cussing.... Coach K at Duke is worse than anyone; Don DeVoe (ask Bertelkamp) could cuss with the best. I will say Kevin could use the "F" word as a verb...adverb, noun, pronoun, adjective, and whatever other possible way it could be used.
Kevin O'Neill left Tennessee in a much better place than what he inherited.....I truly think if he had stayed, we would have continued to improve. I hated the way he left...but that is ANCIENT history.....and....if you read what he said, he hates the way he acted..immaturely.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to jakethevolguy:

What I remember most about the O'Neill coached UT teams is that they couldn't inbounds a ball under pressure to save their butts. I hope it holds true whith his USC team. lol GBO!!

I hope CBP's Vols get back to pressuring the in-bounds pass the way they became famous for. We haven't seen as much of that this year so far.

rockytopatl writes:

Hey Strange, it's "if his teams," not "if his team's." No wonder the posters don't understand possessives when the writers don't.

TeamXer writes:

O'Neill was great here.Had little talent to work with. Remember Alico Dunk? After we beat the 'Dores in Nashville one year, a female Vandy fan told him, "You have the foulest mouth I've ever heard!" O'Neill replied, "And you're the ugliest woman I've ever seen."
GO VOLS!

macon_volfan writes:

He also had a after the game call in show. Always great listening!

bigdisbig writes:

He schooled Bruce Pearl once again....I wish he had stayed. If you can't defend your home turf then you are no good. Beating Pittsburg and Villanova was a fluke. Once this team of Rocky Top League guys tasted loss they must have liked it!
Scotty needs to go away. Stick him on the bench and play McBee. My grandmother can shoot better than Scotty.

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