USC’s O’Neill apologizes

USC coach Kevin O’Neill expressed regret Friday morning for a verbal confrontation involving himself, his wife and an Arizona booster at a Los Angeles hotel Thursday.

“I apologize to the university,” O’Neill said in a phone interview with Yahoo! Sports. “The last thing I’d ever want to do is cause anyone any embarrassment. I’m confident our team won’t let this become a distraction.”

USC takes on Arizona tonight in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament at the Staples Center in L.A.

As much as he regrets what happened, O’Neill said an internet version of Thursday’s incident is grossly inaccurate. The website – a site devoted to Arizona basketball – reported that O’Neill and his wife, Roberta, were “visibly intoxicated” when they exchanged words with a group of Arizona supporters and that they had to be escorted from the hotel. The article also included pictures of O’Neill holding a drink as he posed with an Arizona fan at a restaurant earlier that evening.

O’Neill said the photos were taken at Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, where he went with friends to celebrate Thursday’s 70-56 victory over California. O’Neill said he “had a few drinks” at the restaurant, where he engaged in friendly conversation with a handful of Arizona fans. O’Neill was Arizona’s interim coach from 2007-08.

Later Thursday evening, O’Neill and his wife stopped by the JW Marriott – where the Trojans are staying during the Pac-10 tournament – to retrieve some items before returning to their home in Los Angeles. As the couple stepped off the elevator, O’Neill said he saw an Arizona booster with whom he was on bad terms. O’Neill declined to name the booster, but various internet reports have identified him as Paul Weitman, who is close friends with former Wildcats coach Lute Olson.

O’Neill said he and the booster got into a verbal confrontation in the lobby and that his wife also became involved. He stressed that there was no physical contact and that the argument ended as soon as a security guard approached.

“My wife and I walked away on our own, we got into a cab and went home,” said O’Neill, adding that he wasn’t intoxicated. “It shouldn’t have happened and I’m sorry that it did.

“I just want to make it clear that this was someone I had a personal history with and not just some random Arizona fan off the street.”

USC plays Arizona today in a game that could have huge implications on the Trojans’ NCAA tournament hopes. At 19-13, the Trojans are a bubble team, but a victory over the top-seeded Wildcats may catapult them into the 68-team field. USC split with Arizona in the regular season, beating the Wildcats on Feb. 24 in Los Angeles.

Long regarded as one of the top defensive coaches in the country, O’Neill is in his second season at USC. He has also served as coach at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern and with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. His various stops as an assistant include a stint under Olson from 1986-89, when he played a vital role in Arizona’s 1988 Final Four run.

Olson re-hired O’Neill before the 2007-08 season, and O’Neill became the interim coach after Olson took a leave of absence for medical reasons. O’Neill guided the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament that season and was named as Olson’s permanent successor when Olson decided to retire. O’Neill, though, wasn’t retained by Olson when the coach changed his mind and returned that spring.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 11, 2011