O’Neill to rebuild Wildcats basketball

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Kevin O’Neill, intense, loud, blunt and tenacious, has built a basketball coaching reputation by recruiting top players and rebuilding floundering programs.
Now he has his toughest assignment of all. On Tuesday, he accepted the challenge at Northwestern, a school that has never been invited to the NCAA tournament.
O’Neill, 40, decided to leave Tennessee where he spent the last three years and was in the midst of restructuring that program with two of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
“I took a chance. Columbus did, too,” O’Neill said after a news conference announcing him as the replacement for the fired Ricky Byrdsong.
“I can’t talk about what’s happened here in the past. We will be doing everything in our power to win. We’ve got to find kids who want to be part of doing something that hasn’t been done before.”
Sound familiar at Northwestern? Football coach Gary Barnett took over a program that hadn’t won in 24 years and has led the Wildcats to two straight Big Ten titles and bowl appearances.
O’Neill had a brief phone conversation with Barnett.
“He said it was a great place to work. I didn’t go, `Gary, do you think we can get it done in basketball?’ That would be like Gary calling me and saying, `Kevin do you think we should punt?'”
Before taking the Tennessee job, O’Neill compiled a 86-62 record in five years at Marquette, resurrecting a once powerful program and getting the school into the NIT once and to the NCAAs twice.
Tennessee finished the past season 11-16 and was 36-47 in the three years since athletic director Doug Dickey hired him from Marquette. The Vols were 5-22 the year before he took over.
O’Neill admitted there had been a disagreement with Dickey over the eligibility of Isiah Victor, who was cleared to play by the NCAA but then red-shirted.
“We had a disagreement and we moved on. Did that affect my decision? Not in any way. I made my decision on where I was going to, not where I was leaving,” O’Neill said.
Terms of O’Neill’s contract were not released. Athletic director Rick Taylor said the number of years in O’Neill’s contract was “more than two, less than 14.”
O’Neill had been under contract at Tennessee through 2001. The fifth year of his contract has been renewed each spring. He was paid $375,000 a year, plus income from summer camps, after getting a $30,000 raise last year.
His compensation package could exceed $500,000 annually at Northwestern.
Taylor said O’Neill was his choice because of his tenacious recruiting and the way his Marquette teams always played while Taylor was athletic director at Cincinnati.
“Kevin’s teams had reputations as the ones nobody wanted to play in the tournament and that’s the type of program we’d like to establish here,” Taylor said.
Northwestern went 7-22 this season and won only five Big Ten games in Byrdsong’s last three years. Byrdsong’s four-year record at Northwestern was 34-78, including 10-62 in the Big Ten.
“Anytime you are rebuilding, if you are in single digits, you have a challenge,” O’Neill said of Northwestern’s struggles last season. He said he knew little about the team or the program and would try to put together a staff within the next week.
He said goodbye to his Tennessee players at 5 a.m. Tuesday and will meet Wednesday with the Wildcats.
O’Neill said the opportunity to coach in the Big Ten was the biggest factor in his decision to leave Tennessee, where he said he was comfortable and flattered by the efforts of some to talk him into staying.
Now can he turn around another program? Byrdsong led Northwestern to the NIT in 1994, his first season, but couldn’t sustain the success as several key players were hurt or left school. Northwestern also faces the obstacle of recruiting players who meet its tough academic policies.
“Sometime, somebody’s got to do it. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s not. We’ll find out,” O’Neill said.
“I don’t know if I can do something here that nobody else has been able to do. But I’m probably going to die trying, I can assure you of that. I don’t think I’m the best coach or the best recruiter, but I’m the best tryer.”