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January 14, 2013

KO let go, Cantu takes over

It really was just a matter of time. Too much time, many of us thought.

But Kevin O'Neill was finally relieved of his USC basketball coaching duties Monday morning at an 8 a.m. meeting with AD Pat Haden and Associate AD Steve Lopes midway through his fourth season heading the Trojans' hoops program.

And for the second time in three years, top assistant Bob Cantu will take over. The 17-year veteran with 12 years at USC assumed the head coaching reins two years ago for the Arizona game in the Pac-10 tournament after O'Neill was suspended after a run-in with a fan at the team hotel.

The Trojans almost pulled that game out, a 67-62 loss, but this time Cantu will get to finish out the season starting Thursday at Galen Center against Oregon (8 p.m.) and then Saturday at home against Oregon State (5 p.m.).

USC is 7-10 (2-2 in the Pac-12) and despite winning their last game at Utah Saturday to stop a 14-game road losing streak, the Trojans have lost nine of their last 13 games including a five-game losing streak.

"I would like to thank Kevin O'Neill for his four years of service to USC," said Haden, who has been conspicuously out of sight and uavailable for interviews since the Sun Bowl Dec. 31. "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.

"I feel confident that Bob Cantu will capably guide our team on an interim basis while we search for a new coach."

Headed down the 405 to his home in Coronado after learning the news, O'Neill was quoted by USC as saying: "I enjoyed my four years at USC. It is a special place. I enjoyed the people I worked with, the players I coached and our fans. I thank USC for allowing me to guide their program. I couldn't be more proud to work anywhere.

"I would encourage all of our recruits to honor their commitment to USC and help build the Trojan program in the right direction."

O'Neill, also the head coach at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern and Arizona, was in his fourth year at USC and departs with a 48-65 overall record after a 6-26 mark, worst in school history, in an injury-plagued 2011-12 season.

O'Neill followed the successful Tim Floyd, who left a rising USC program in the wake of the NCAA investigation when he felt the athletic administration of previous AD Mike Garrett failed to back the basketball program, in effect making it a scapegoat at the time.

This will be Haden's first real major "national" coaching search in his three-year tenure. He'd promised one for the baseball job but ultimately elevated assistant Frank Cruz.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.


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