I was a student at Northwestern when, on January 9th, 1999, the Wildcat men’s basketball team rolled into Champaign, Illinois and dominated the Fighting Illini 59-46 to go to 9-3 on the season. That particular NU squad was led by All-America center Evan Eschmeyer, who was a terrific college player but a poor man’s Marcin Gortat in the NBA (which didn’t prevent Mark Cuban from throwing $20 million at him to suffer a career-ending injury and become a lawyer).
It had all the makings of a magical year in Evanston. At one point the ‘Cats were 14-6 and receiving votes in the major polls, which was a huge development for a school that had never played in the NCAA Tournament. Yet still, outside of Eschmeyer, anyone connected to the hoops program could walk through town without causing much of a stir. That was especially true of coach Kevin O’Neill, who is back in the news after being hired this past weekend to clean up whatever mess USC is eventually going to find itself in. O’Neill was quite fond of the local drinking establishments — perhaps a bit too fond. And it may have derailed Northwestern’s shot at history.
Evanston’s bars closed at midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on weekends, so NU students often traveled south to neighboring Chicago to bars that were open as late as 5 a.m. on Saturday nights. One such place was the Mark II Lounge (lovingly referred to as the “Deuce”), which was about a block on the Chicago side of the border. It was a favorite of NU’s basketball players, and many team members gathered there the night of the big win over Illinois. I happened to be there too.
It was a jovial scene, but nothing out of control. The guys seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and reveling in being part in what was looking like the first tournament team in school history. Then, at what I remember was well after 2 a.m., O’Neill came strolling in the door. He wasn’t coming to admonish his players (some of whom were underage) for being out drinking. He wanted to party too. So he strolled up to the bartender, and soon was carrying a tray of shots back to the table the team had commandeered.
At this point, I was riveted on what was going on over there. How could a Division I coach get away with this? I don’t think I could even see Bob Huggins doing this. This was a public place after all, and while I’m not familiar with all of the NCAA regulations, I’m pretty sure they would frown upon this kind of thing. I personally found the whole thing more amusing than anything else. It showed an interesting lack of boundaries, but otherwise I thought it was fairly harmless.
(As an aside, all of this shows how anonymous you are as the basketball coach at Northwestern. Not only did the Chicago townies at the bar have no idea who he was, if you would’ve shown his picture to 10 NU students at the time, 7 would have guessed he was Krusty the Klown and the other 3 would’ve guessed he was Larry David.)
But then I noticed how the players began to act when O’Neill was there. They still seemed happy, but were a little quieter. Some looked stunned that they were getting free drinks from their coach. But the vibe was definitely much, much different. In fact, I could tell that deep down, despite the social gesture made by their coach, that they didn’t really like the guy.
It’s not an unusual story when it comes to O’Neill. He’s known as a brilliant basketball mind with little ability to connect with his players and fellow coaches. In fact, based on this night and things I heard from friends of mine who talked regularly with the players, O’Neill was virtually incapable of relating to the kids at all if he wasn’t doing it over drinks. I was told that when the players reunited after graduation one of the main things that bonded them together was their universal disdain for their former coach.
And, from what I could tell, O’Neill’s social ills reached across the board. I occasionally visited a hotel bar that was known as “Gary Barnett’s” (after NU’s football coach at the time), and O’Neill was there sometimes, by himself, making overtures toward any waitress who would give him the time of day. One such waitress was a particular target of KO’s attention, and he seemed to have no problem making his intentions clear to everyone in the bar.
He was also well-known (and still is) for verbally brutalizing players who fell out of favor with him. One player who was absent from the night out at the Deuce was Canadian center Aron Molnar, who O’Neill often referred to as the four-letter “c word” followed by the suffix “-osaurus rex.” Sean Wink, who set an NU freshman record in three-pointers made in 1997-98, fell into O’Neill’s dog house the next year and was so fed up that he quit basketball after the ‘99 season but stuck around to finish his degree.
I don’t know if this night at the Deuce was the first time O’Neill engaged with his players in this way, but things were never quite the same in NU hoops land. That NU team would win only five games the rest of the regular season, and after a heart-breaking loss to Michigan State in the Big 10 Tournament, lost in the first round of the NIT to DePaul.
The next year, without Eschmeyer, things blew up on O’Neill. His team visibly disliked him on the floor, and the ‘Cats were one of the most futile teams a BCS league has ever fielded. They went 0-16 in conference play, including a notorious game against Illinois in Evanston in which the Illini held a 23-0 lead with five minutes left in the first half. Many in the crowd fully believed the Wildcats would be shut out for an entire half, but they scratched out six points by halftime on the way to a 63-30 loss. Earlier that year, NU lost to USC 85-44 and put up only 26 points on Evansville.
O’Neill’s foot was well out the door before that season even ended. When the Knicks came calling with an assistant coaching job, he didn’t even think twice, and Northwestern’s dismal basketball program was left even worse off than ever before. Ten years later, our school still hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament.
There’s no doubt that O’Neill has succeeded professionally at times. He put Marquette and Tennessee back on the map and keeps getting job offers from NBA teams, so he must be able to do something right. He also recruited Tavaras Hardy to Northwestern, who is currently a tremendous recruiter for the ‘Cats as an assistant coach.
I’m just not so sure he’s the best guy to stabilize what is already a turbulent situation in SoCal, considering that in a world of cell phone cameras and Twitter, it’s not going to be quite as easy for KO to treat his guys to some sake bombs at Miyagi’s.