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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    It’s official: O’Neill hired

    After a year in which the Arizona men’s basketball team ranked second-to-last in the conference in scoring defense, defensive specialist Kevin O’Neill was announced as Arizona’s new assistant coach as expected at a press conference yesterday afternoon.

    O’Neill, a former UA assistant and Toronto Raptors head coach, replaces former UA associate head coach Jim Rosborough on the staff.

    “”It’s an honor and a privilege to be back here working with (UA head coach) Lute (Olson), working at the University of Arizona,”” O’Neill said. “”I’m excited about the possibilities of it, competing for a national championship, which is what this program’s always been about.

    “”I’m appreciative of coach Olson bringing me back here, and I’m appreciative of being able to coach in such a great place and in a great town.””

    It’s no secret why the Wildcats chose O’Neill.

    “”A closer look at O’Neill””
    27 years of coaching experience
    ? Noted defensive specialist
    ? Last year worked as consultant for the Indiana Pacers
    ? Six seasons in the NBA (five as
    an assistant)
    ? 2003-04 head coach of the Toronto Raptors (33-49)
    ? Head coach at Northwestern, Tennessee and
    Marquette (152-165)
    ? Arizona assistant from 1986-89 (82-19, one Final Four)

    – compiled by
    Michael Schwartz

    “”They didn’t hire me for my looks,”” O’Neill said.

    UA assistant coach Josh Pastner said O’Neill will be in charge of the defense. He added that O’Neill, who prefers his teams to play man-to-man defense, is one of the best defensive coaches in the nation.

    “”With the ability coach O’Neill brings to coach and recruit, it’s an instant five-star type of impact,”” Pastner said. “”It’s equivalent to getting a five-star recruit.””

    O’Neill, also a former head coach at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern, spent this past season as a consultant for the Indiana Pacers. He had head coaching offers in college and assistant offers in the NBA, but ultimately chose to return to the place for which he worked as an assistant from 1986-89.

    “”The thing that really intrigued me was coming back to Arizona,”” said O’Neill, 50, who plans on coaching for 25 more years. “”If I was going to come back to college basketball, it was going to be at a place of Arizona’s caliber and preferably a place where I know people, so this was a good opportunity. It happened at the right time.””

    The hiring comes after O’Neill spent his first season out of coaching since he became head coach of Hammond High School to start his career in 1979. The year away from teaching the game was “”really difficult,”” he said.

    O’Neill wanted to get back into the profession, and if it was going to be at the college level, the only position he had “”any interest”” in was at Arizona.

    That was in part to pay back a debt to Olson for helping him start his coaching career.

    “”I appreciate what Lute did for me,”” he said. “”He got me the start, got me the Marquette job (his first college head coaching job), was instrumental in a lot of my successes and that more than anything. It wasn’t college basketball per se, it was Arizona basketball that caught my attention more than anything.””

    After a casual conversation in which Olson found out O’Neill would have interest in a position at Arizona, things went from there, O’Neill said.

    “”Kevin is a great coach and an exceptional recruiter,”” Olson said in a press release. “”He understands my coaching style and the expectations of this program. We are thrilled to have him back in Tucson.””

    Olson was in Phoenix yesterday and unavailable for further comment.

    Although O’Neill was noted as a standout recruiter during his time in the college game – once even wearing a gorilla suit to attract a recruit – his recruiting prowess could be expanded after spending time in the NBA, working with young players like Toronto star Chris Bosh.

    Although he said he doesn’t think his NBA experience will make much of a difference on the recruiting trail, he acknowledged players’ fascination with making it to the league.

    “”I think unfortunately every kid thinks they’re going to play in the NBA,”” O’Neill said. “”Players don’t understand it’s very, very difficult to play at that level. It’s very difficult to achieve at that level even more so. Kids want to talk about the NBA; they want to hear about the NBA.””

    College coaches often make the jump to the NBA, as O’Neill did in leaving Northwestern for an assistant job with the New York Knicks in 2000 at a time he said was right for him.

    Now he said the time was right for him to return to the college game despite the unorthodox move down the coaching ladder from the pros to a job as a college assistant. That’s because returning to Arizona represented a “”unique situation”” in which he could go to a school where he could work for a coach he respects at a place he loves.

    “”Assistant coaches dictate often how much you win, how much you lose,”” O’Neill said. “”They’re a big part of winning or losing just like the head coach, so is it going to bother my ego to not be a head coach or be an assistant in college? Not one bit. I don’t want to be an assistant in college at Northbrook College.

    “”I just hope that I can add something and help the team get better every day, help Lute do a better job and help the university win.””

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