Kevin O'Neill out as USC coach

Updated: January 14, 2013, 6:08 PM ET
By Jason King | ESPN.com

USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill was fired Monday during an 8 a.m PT meeting with athletic director Pat Haden and associate athletic director Steve Lopes.

"They informed me they were going in a different direction," O'Neill told ESPN.com by phone as he was driving home from the meeting. "I thanked them for the opportunity. I have nothing but great things to say about the university. It's a great place."

USC was 7-10 this season under O'Neill, including a 2-2 mark in Pac-12 play. A year ago the injury-riddled Trojans finished 6-26 and won only one conference game.

Associate head coach Bob Cantu, a 12-year member of the staff, will take over on an interim basis for the rest of the season. O'Neill said he is due $1.5 million for the remainder of his contract.

"It's disappointing any time you don't win enough," O'Neill said Monday. "That's what it comes down to in this business, winning enough. I'm disappointed I couldn't do a better job for the players."

Even though USC has improved significantly from last season, the Trojans have still struggled to win games. Hoping for a quick fix, O'Neill signed a slew of transfers such as J.T. Terrell and Ari Stewart (both from Wake Forest), Omar Oraby (Rice) and Eric Wise (UC Irvine). With all of them playing together for the first time this season, chemistry and cohesion was clearly an issue.

"Having so many new guys all at once was obviously a challenge," O'Neill said. "In the last few weeks we've actually played really good basketball."

USC registered recent wins over Dayton, Stanford and Utah.

Another issue that might have doomed O'Neill was scheduling. Few teams in the country played as difficult a nonconference slate as the Trojans, who lost to Illinois, Marquette, San Diego State, New Mexico and Minnesota. They also lost nonleague road games against Nebraska and Georgia.

Asked if he would've done things differently when recruiting or scheduling, O'Neill said: "No, I don't have any regrets. I just regret we didn't win enough. That always falls on the head coach."

[+] EnlargeKevin O'Neill
Kirby Lee/US PresswireAfter coaching the Trojans successfully through an NCAA-sanctioned season to start his tenure, Kevin O'Neill couldn't survive a 7-10 start in Year 4.

O'Neill's tenure wasn't without its good moments. He took over in the summer of 2009 after Tim Floyd resigned amid allegations of NCAA infractions. The school lost an entire recruiting class and was banned from the postseason the following year, but O'Neill still managed to lead the team to a winning season. In 2010-11, he guided the Trojans to the NCAA tournament.

"I would like to thank Kevin O'Neill for his four years of service to USC," Haden said in a statement. "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."

Cantu, 38, has had quite a run at USC. He was hired in 2001 by former coach Henry Bibby and has worked under four others -- Jim Saia, the late Rick Majerus, Floyd and O'Neill. Like O'Neill, Bibby and Majerus departed in the middle of the season.

According to Cantu, Haden told him "we're going to make the change and we're asking you to be the interim head coach. That was it."

Cantu was hired at USC from Sacramento State, where he was an assistant. He previously worked in junior college and at Cal Poly.

"I've just been really fortunate," Cantu told ESPN.com. "It just kind of worked out at this point. I've been real fortunate. I didn't know Tim or Kevin at all and [tried to] do the best I could in whatever area I could. I had opportunities and never had a chance to be an interim coach at this level."

"This never would have happened if Kevin didn't promote me to associate head coach," Cantu added. "I'm grateful to him."

Known as one of the country's top defensive minds, O'Neill also has been the head coach at Tennessee, Marquette and Northwestern. He was hired by coach Lute Olson as an assistant at Arizona before the 2007-08 season, became interim coach when Olson took a medical leave of absence and led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament. O'Neill also has been an NBA head coach with the Toronto Raptors.

O'Neill, who turns 56 on Jan. 24, was asked if he wants to coach again.

"Yeah, I think I do," he said. "I'm not sure. I love coaching. We'll see what happens. Good coaches get fired every day. That's the way it is. It's a hazard of the business."

Information from ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz was included in this report.