Can USC hoops mirror football's success?
LOS ANGELES — On a campus where football rules and everything else is a distant second, the basketball program is floundering. USC loves its national rankings and its Heisman Trophy winners, but hoops are traditionally an afterthought.
The firing this week of coach Kevin O’Neill barely registered as a major story. The Trojans’ 7-11 record and seventh-place standing in the Pac-12 Conference elicits little more than shrugs. USC fans are more interested in spring football than a basketball team that seems a long shot to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
But success in football and basketball are not mutually exclusive. The University of Florida has won two national championships in each sport since 2006. Ohio State, a perennial Big Ten power in football, was runner-up to the Gators in 2007. Michigan won the national title in basketball in 1989 and made two Finals Fours in the ‘90s.
So why not USC?
“We have no impediments, as far as I’m concerned, to having a consistently good basketball program,” athletic director Pat Haden said. “Our goal now is to reboot the basketball opportunity here and build a winning tradition, not one that’s up and down. That’s our intent, that’s our goal. It has clearly been done in other places — Michigan, Ohio State, Florida to name three — where you can have a successful football program and a successful basketball program. We’d like to do that.”
The fact they haven’t is a puzzler. USC has the resources and the attractions — sun, sand and surf — to draw talented players. It finally abandoned the dusty and outdated Sports Arena for the 10,250-seat Galen Center in 2006. It has the money to bring in any number of high-profile coaches.
And perhaps that’s where everything will turn. If Haden is committed to lifting the basketball program to the level of football, his next step is hiring an on-the-rise coach ready to take a leap of faith.
“We have to go out and get a great coach, period,” Haden said.
Haden has not moved either way on interim coach Bob Cantu, who is in his 12th season as a USC assistant, but it’s likely the next coach is working somewhere else right now.
Already mentioned is Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, a southern California native who played at Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks and served as an assistant to UCLA coach Ben Howland when Howland was at Northern Arizona and Pitt. Dixon, 47, is in his 10th season as head coach at Pitt and has led the team to two No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
But there are other possible candidates, among them Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, who took his team to the Elite Eight in 2011, and Brad Stevens at Butler, whose teams advanced to the Final Four in 2010 and 2011. Haden won’t say, but any search is likely to start with those three and possibly Mark Few at Gonzaga.
Under O’Neill, the Trojans were going in the opposite direction. They were 6-26 last season and started this season 4-8 with a team composed mostly of transfers. Several recruits departed.
Until the recent unraveling, there was a belief the program was moving forward. The Trojans made three consecutive tournament appearances under coach Tim Floyd, the last in 2009, before it came under NCAA scrutiny for an alleged payment Floyd made to an associate of former USC star O.J. Mayo.
Floyd was never disciplined, but he resigned from his position in June 2009, claiming then-athletic director Mike Garrett had failed to offer him support during the NCAA investigation. The program is on probation until June 2014, although it is not prohibited from competing in the postseason tournament.
“When Tim Floyd resigned, we lost three guys to the pros and then we lost our entire recruiting class, which was released [from its commitment],” Cantu said. “Because of that huge gap in the recruiting class, we lost momentum and we lost bodies. We weren’t able to maintain the momentum that we had.”
Since then, USC has tried in vain to regain its footing. In many ways, it’s still attempting to get back what it had under Floyd.
“I think we were on track, when Tim was here, to take over the conference and take over the West,” Cantu said. “We had five guys that are in the NBA right now that are playing and playing well. Not a lot of teams can say that.”
Cantu, who has been a successful recruiter for USC, said he’s dealt first hand with the notion that the school is all about football. He’s heard recruits’ parents tell him that playing for the Trojans means playing at a football school.
“People say that sometimes, but I can go anywhere in the country and they know USC because we’re a great football school,” he said. “But basketball has been good at other places — Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State.
“I think we can do it. We’ve done it before. We did it three straight years with Floyd, and Henry Bibby went to the Elite Eight in 2000-2001. So it’s been done, but it hasn’t been done on a consistent basis. That’s got to be the goal moving forward, to get the players that can help you year in and year out.”
Haden will have a chance to hire his first basketball coach since becoming athletic director, and although he has said there’s considerable interest in the job, the likelihood is that a prominent coach will have to be approached once the season is over. Then it will be up to Haden to lure him west — and convince him that he’s just as focused on winning in basketball as he is in football.
That won’t be easy.
“I don’t buy that you can’t be good in basketball just because you’re good in football,” Haden said. “There’s too many schools that prove that theory wrong ... We’ve had periods of some very good basketball teams, but we don’t want just periods. We want to build this program.”