By Sean Jensen
It took Kevin O’Neill half a decade to show his peers what kind of basketball coach he was. It took him a two-and-a-half-minute cameo in the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams to show the rest of the world.
O’Neill, you may recall, was the Marquette University coach who finally won over William Gates, one of the two Chicago youths trying to beat the odds and ride basketball out of the projects. O’Neill worked from the top down, first impressing Gates’s mother with weekly letters and cards. With Gates, he talked about national championship goals and helping Gates reach his potential as a student as well as an athlete, promising he wouldn’t lose his scholarship even if his bad knee gave out for good. What he said sounded too good to be true, but today Gates calls him the most honest man he knows.
Gates sat out the 1993-’94 season for “personal reasons,” then came back for one year under coach Mike Deane. He’s still about four credits shy of his degree in communications, but he’s taking classes at Loyola–on Marquette’s dime–and hopes to graduate this summer. He has three kids now and works for a real estate group that intends to build affordable housing in the Cabrini-Green area next year. “If this Hoop Dreams thing wouldn’t have happened for me, I probably would have had a lot of regrets in terms of my basketball choice,” he says. “But in terms of academics, the school has been great to me. My goodness, even to this day, those people still take care of me.”
In Hoop Dreams O’Neill wasn’t doing anything he doesn’t normally do in the course of trying to get young hotshots around the country to play where he’s coaching–be it at Marquette, Tennessee, or Northwestern, where last year he took over the most pathetic Division I men’s basketball program in the country. He was just being himself, which is to say, over-the-top.
“If you’re not impressed by an eyeball-to-eyeball meeting with Kevin O’Neill, then someone better feel your pulse to see whether you’re alive,” NBC sportscaster Al McGuire, who coached at Marquette in the 70s, has said. O’Neill’s animated sideline tirades, his bluntness, and of course his ballsy recruiting tactics have made him the kind of larger-than-life character about whom such things are routinely repeated. When he took over at NU, a Chicago sports-radio jock called him “a Bobby Knight with personality.”
But unlike Knight, whose name is practically synonymous with Indiana University, O’Neill has yet to devote his talents to any one team for more than five years. O’Neill always leaves, and where he goes, a steady buzz follows. Some former players treat him like a father, but others say they were enticed to play basketball by a very different man from the volatile guy who ended up coaching them day in and day out. While he was at Marquette, his incessant pushing took the Warriors, who’d been middling for a decade, to two NCAA tournaments and one Sweet 16. And at Tennessee the season after he left–nominally because of a disagreement over one player’s academic eligibility–the team he’d assembled went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. Colleagues and former players, even those who don’t like him, say he probably can do the same for Northwestern. The question is, what will it take?
O’Neill grew up in Chateaugay, New York, a small farming community two miles from the Canadian border. His father, Ken, drove a school bus twice a day, delivered mail in the afternoon, and sold real estate at night. His mother, Kate, wanted Kevin to be a dentist, like the one who “probably made more money than anyone else in our town,” he says, and so when he went to McGill University in Quebec on a partial basketball scholarship, he promised to study predent. He switched to elementary education after about three weeks. He earned three letters, playing in the Canadian equivalent of the Final Four his sophomore year and starting at point guard as a senior. He was a role player, a Rodman type who dove for the loose balls and took the hard charges.
“I first saw him dribbling a basketball on the track,” says his college teammate and best friend Larry Gibson, now the senior vice president of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Boston. “I figured he was either crazy or an avid basketball player. He turned out to be a great floor general, but he couldn’t shoot worth a damn.”
Off the court O’Neill played with the same intensity. One night, he, Gibson, and Paul Legare–all Americans–got hammered and started shoving one another on a ledge that was some 30 feet above street level. Legare pushed O’Neill so hard he nearly fell off the ledge. Gibson grabbed O’Neill by an ankle and slowly pulled him back to safety. “His eyes were as wide as saucers,” Gibson says. “Kevin thought he saw his death. That was a typical night.” On another typical night, O’Neill walked a mile home from the dorms to his off-campus apartment without a shirt on, in a windchill of 30 below zero. “He looked like he was on fire,” Gibson says. “We bet him five dollars he wouldn’t do it, but he made it all the way back. Of course we didn’t pay him.”
By the time he graduated, in 1979, O’Neill knew he wouldn’t be shooting or dribbling his way into the NBA, so he traded his sweats for double-breasted suits and set out to coach his way in. After a year at a high school in upstate Hammond, New York, where his team went 13-8, he accepted the head coaching position at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. In his second season there he led the team to the regional junior college playoffs. He also met Martha Wells, a part-time student who would become his wife and the mother of his son, Sean, now 11.
O’Neill got his big break in 1986, when Lute Olson, one of the most respected coaches in the country, brought him to the University of Arizona as an assistant. For the next three years, the Arizona Wildcats advanced to the NCAA tournament, racking up 82 wins and just 19 losses and going to the Final Four in ’88. Meanwhile O’Neill was developing a reputation as the nation’s top recruiter, affirmed by a poll of 294 Division I coaches by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1989. He brought to Arizona future NBA players Brian Williams, Sean Rooks, and Jud Buechler.
O’Neill ascribes his relentlessness to his father’s example. “Dad never wasted any minutes in his day,” O’Neill says. “But he was a very giving guy, and he always had time to give.” If O’Neill’s riding his stationary bike, he’s also watching NYPD Blue and talking to his secretary. If he’s granting an interview, he’s also eating a snack and taking long-distance calls. He says he sleeps just five hours a night. He drank about 20 Diet Cokes a day until a couple years ago, when he cut back to two or three. “They just make you feel like shit after a while,” he says.
Once, while he was on the road recruiting for Tennessee, he caught highlights from a Lady Volunteers victory over powerhouse Louisiana Tech and phoned coach Pat Summitt to congratulate her. “He called me at 12:30 in the morning, and he was all fired up,” Summitt says. “He said he saw us on TV and called me like it was six in the evening. Kevin has no concept of time because he works around the clock.”
When Rooks, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, was a high school kid thinking about going to Arizona, O’Neill dressed in a gorilla suit to pick up him and his mother from the airport on Halloween. He came to current Tennessee junior C.J. Black’s home in Chattanooga wearing goggles just like C.J.’s. He sent McDonald’s All-American Tony Harris, who played his first season at Tennessee after O’Neill was gone, a box the size of a computer monitor packed with 1,000 handwritten notes that said things like “Do the American thing–go to Tennessee,” signed “Bill Clinton,” or “Dear Tony, after you go to Tennessee you can be in my next action picture,” signed “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” But once he’s in the door, O’Neill says, he’s deadly serious. “I’m the most straightforward recruiter in the country,” he claims. “I’ll go into homes and tell the kids they’re not as good as they think and what they need to work on. I don’t promise anything but opportunity.”
Shannon Smith, a former Marquette player who was recruited the same year William Gates was, remembers that O’Neill had an answer for every question and that everything he said sounded golden. “He covered every aspect of the college experience, from classes all the way down to training tables,” says Smith. “My parents had a checklist of questions for each school that came into our home. Usually, with the schools that visited beforehand, we had to ask questions. But Kevin talked from the time he came in until it was time to leave, so we really didn’t have to ask him anything.” The thing he said that stood out most in Smith’s mind was, “Shannon, if I stop coaching you, that means I don’t care what you do.”
When Smith visited Marquette, he got the same sort of four-star treatment Gates did in Hoop Dreams. When he walked into the basketball office, there were pictures of him everywhere, a “Shannon shrine,” he says. When he walked into his hotel room in downtown Milwaukee, he found it filled with balloons, confetti, and more pictures. When he walked into the team’s locker room, he was shown a stall and a chair with his name already on them. He committed to Marquette later that afternoon, upstairs in one of the Bradley Center’s luxury boxes.
“I wish I would have gone to a practice,” he says now, “because I would have heard the kind of language he used, the kind of tactics he would use as motivation, and the uncomfortable atmosphere itself.”
At Smith’s first practice, he says, O’Neill started the team on a 60-minute conditioning session. Time was kept on the scoreboard, and with about five minutes left, the coach walked in on a defensive slide drill. One player wasn’t low enough in his stance, Smith says, and O’Neill blew up, demanding that the clock be reset and the entire session repeated from the beginning.
On another occasion, O’Neill grew upset with the lack of intensity in the first few minutes of an early-afternoon practice. When a couple players missed layups during a three-man weave, O’Neill warned the team that if there were one more mistake during the drill they’d all have to return to the gym at midnight. Gates missed a dunk, O’Neill threw his keys into the stands, and the team practiced again, until two in the morning.
“I had a test the next day,” Smith recalls. “And he said, ‘I don’t care if you guys have tests, I don’t care if you guys have papers, you do them now, because we’re coming back at midnight.'” Smith still remembers doing poorly on his exam, which was at eight-thirty.
If the team were watching video and O’Neill saw something he didn’t like, he was likely to hurl the remote control at the screen. Smith says the coach broke three or four remotes this way. And during one particularly tense halftime in Smith’s sophomore season, he says, O’Neill punched a wall. “We all knew it hurt. It had to have hurt. But he didn’t show us it hurt. And then the next day he comes in with a cast.”
Such reports are hardly news. For instance, in an article in the March 13, 1997, Tennessean, sportswriter Larry Woody recounted the story of the time at Marquette when O’Neill trashed a motel room–which, Woody suggests, may have cost him a job at Vanderbilt–and notes that there were “dents in the scorer’s table at [UT’s] Thompson-Boling Arena that weren’t there when O’Neill arrived.”
Smith also remembers that O’Neill was particularly nasty with one of his teammates, Robb Logterman. “He called this guy all kind of names. Not just regular names you could just brush off. But names to where you could question yourself and say, ‘Man, what does this have to do with coaching me?’ He called him a cocksucker, a pussy, a mama’s boy, an asshole, all that. This wasn’t just a couple of days. He rode him like this every day.”
Gates agrees that Logterman took more than his share of crap. “[O’Neill] would slap him on the back, throw a basketball at his head, or throw a water bottle at him, then a second later he would give him a hug. It was from one extreme to the other.
“We had some big guys on the team who weren’t afraid of coach O’Neill. I mean coach O’Neill isn’t a big guy,” Gates adds. “We had guys who weren’t afraid to say, ‘Hey coach, you need to calm down.’ Anytime we as a team came together and felt like coach was going too far, coach would listen and he would back off a little.”
He says O’Neill made sure his players were treated like players from powerhouse programs around the country. They stayed at the best hotels, had good sponsorship deals, and sported extra-nice uniforms and sweats. “For some of those guys–including myself–we come from the inner city, and it was a blessing to have more than one sweat suit,” Gates says. O’Neill’s coaching style was just the other side of the same coin. “When Shannon and I came in, we didn’t know what NCAA basketball was all about,” he says. “If we took the high school approach, we’d never win a ball game at the collegiate level. There were times coach did go too far, but at the same time he did so much for us.”
Logterman, now an account manager with AT&T in Milwaukee, agrees that O’Neill came down particularly hard on him, but says it was for his own good. “Kevin is like an older brother. I’ve known him since I was a junior in high school. I may not have been able to take the pushing, but he knew I could handle it, and now I see it as an honor that he used me as an example to motivate other players. I called Kevin a lot of names too. I didn’t understand why he pushed me or my teammates so much. But what I found out was that he was correct. Kevin never let up on me and he never gave up on me. He never expected anything less than 100 percent, and that’s carried over.”
In 1995 and 1996, while Logterman was getting his master’s in sports management from Tennessee, he lived with O’Neill and his family. In July, he and his wife accompanied O’Neill and his son to Hawaii. “If I was mistreated in any way by Kevin,” he says, “I wouldn’t want to go visit him and spend my vacations with him.”
O’Neill confirmed Smith’s stories, but added, “I don’t care what Shannon Smith says, because there is a guy that obviously couldn’t make it at our level. So his opinion doesn’t matter to me one bit. If you talk to his teammates, they’ll tell you he was soft, didn’t play hard, and he couldn’t help us.”
Toward the end of his freshman season, Smith says, he nearly attacked O’Neill after a conference tournament loss to Cincinnati at Chicago Stadium. Smith was sitting at his locker when O’Neill came in and began questioning his shot selection. Smith, who was already upset with his performance, kept his head down. “He just totally snapped,” Smith recalls. “He just snapped….He said, ‘You’re not looking at me. I’ve had it all year.’ And everything he could think of, he said. Somehow he brought my mom into it. I kind of had to be restrained by the guys because he took it to the personal level. I don’t know what I would have done, but I was upset enough to go after my coach.”
Technically Smith and O’Neill made up, but the relationship was never the same. Smith says O’Neill barely spoke to him, and he thought about what the coach had told him when he was a recruit. O’Neill had stopped coaching him. In his sophomore year Smith transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he averaged an impressive 24.5 points a game his first season but only 11.7 the next, under yet another coach. He says he’s been invited to attend the training camp of an NBA team when the lockout ends. O’Neill says he doesn’t believe it: “Ronald Reagan has a better chance of playing in the NBA.”
“Coach O’Neill is a good guy,” Smith says. “I don’t have a problem with him personally as a man….With his recruiting style, he gets the best players. Anywhere he goes, he could turn a program around. I think he could turn the [LA] Clippers around. But the way he did things was not cool.”
So what kind of player does thrive under O’Neill? “Kevin never demands anything more from his assistants or players than he does of himself,” NU assistant coach Brian Gregory says. “The assistants and players take on the coach’s personality in terms of work ethic. To play for Kevin, you have to have clear objectives in what you want to accomplish and must be willing to pay the price to accomplish those goals.” O’Neill says he likes “anybody that just plays hard every day, gets the most out of their ability, and cares a lot about the team.”
Through the years, O’Neill has fostered special relationships with a number of his former players. “My life’s been totally dedicated to basketball, so those relationships mean a lot to me,” he says. “That’s what coaching is really all about.”
In the left inside pocket of his suit jacket, he always carries a handful of letters, including one from his son, Sean; one from San Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott, whom he coached at Arizona; and a Father’s Day card from former Marquette point guard Tony Miller, who now plays pro ball in Europe. O’Neill explains why Miller was his kind of player: “If you were to put him in a dribbling drill and make him use his left hand, he couldn’t do it. He would’ve knocked a bunch of cones over or tripped. But he was a great player because of his heart and competitiveness.” Under O’Neill Miller became the only player in NCAA history to score more than 1,000 points, grab more than 500 rebounds, and throw more than 900 assists.
Sean Elliott gives the coach a lot of credit for his success. “Kevin O’Neill went to work on me,” he says. “Some days I would say to myself, ‘Is this man going to bother me again today about my academics?’ He kept pushing me–on and off the court. He never let up. That’s one of the main reasons I am where I am today.”
O’Neill says he’s spent about $100,000 helping former players who weren’t NBA material, including Logterman, through graduate school, and he also believes in helping those who aspire to be in his position someday. When Gregory was on the recruiting circuit as an assistant at Toledo two years ago, O’Neill pulled him aside and gave him some advice. “I worked for guys he liked and respected, and he wanted to help me out,” Gregory says. “He told me to be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. You’d be surprised how many recruits notice things like that.”
During the Final Four, O’Neill makes a point of gathering a bunch of young, hungry assistants from Division II and III schools, getting them tickets to games, and “taking care of them. Coaches have a little success and forget where the fuck they came from,” he says. “They don’t want to help young guys get started and forget they were young guys once. They’re more worried about their golf game.”
When O’Neill left Arizona for Marquette in 1989, the Warriors were coming off a 13-15 season; in his last year there, they went to the Sweet 16. But he left anyway, he says, “because it was time to go. There’s always a time to go.”
At Tennessee, he inherited a team that had won just five games in the 1993-’94 season. Last season, under new coach Jerry Green, the team went 20-9 and made it into the NCAA tournament. “Jerry Green did a great job with Kevin’s players,” is how South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler puts it.
When he was at Tennessee, O’Neill reportedly clashed often with athletic director Doug Dickey. “Kevin prides himself on being the most stubborn person in the world,” says David Climer, a college-sports columnist for the Tennessean in Nashville. “In Dickey, O’Neill met his match. It’s like two bulls just staring at each other, and Kevin finally saw a way out.” O’Neill last disagreed with Dickey over the eligibility of a player named Isiah Victor. In the 1996 preseason, Victor’s academic record was given the stamp of approval by the NCAA clearinghouse, but Dickey and Southeastern Conference officials raised questions about specific course descriptions on his transcript. O’Neill felt that Victor should be getting more support from his own school, and that if he had played football–Tennessee’s true sports passion–things would have been different. In March 1997, he signed a multiyear contract with Northwestern and started packing, despite various pleas–including Dickey’s–for him to stay.
Dickey declined to comment on the eligibility conflict for this article, but said, “I wish Coach O’Neill well. He had a wonderful record at Marquette, and he recruited some fine players for us….We’re having some success now, and a part of the credit goes to him.”
O’Neill’s departure from Tennessee infuriated local sportswriters, and some blasted him as a mercenary, a hired gun more interested in sealing the deal than winning the title. But NU needs deals sealed before it can even think about titles. Says athletic director Rick Taylor, “He’s got a well-deserved reputation as a great recruiter, and that’s what we needed.”
Other coaches have avoided NU like a plague. In 1993, before O’Neill predecessor Ricky Byrdsong was hired, Texas A&M’s Tony Barone removed himself from consideration and Duke assistant Tommy Amaker (now head coach at Seton Hall) turned down an offer. The man who’d succeeded O’Neill at Marquette, Mike Deane, accepted the job, but 30 minutes before he was to board a plane that would take him to his introductory news conference, he pulled out too. Referring to the coach he was to replace, he told the Chicago Tribune: “Here’s a guy who was in the NCAA championship [with Duke in 1978] and won more games than I ever will. I had to ask myself, if Bill Foster couldn’t get it done, what makes you think you could?”
But O’Neill grabbed the bull by the horns. He bought an $880,000, 8,600-square-foot lakefront dream house in Evanston, and in July 1997, he, Martha, and Sean moved in.
Three months later, on the morning of O’Neill’s first practice of his first season at Northwestern, Martha told him she was moving out, taking Sean and 15 years’ worth of possessions with her–a brand-new computer, family pictures, furniture, even the couple’s bed. Losing the stuff didn’t faze him, O’Neill insists, but losing his son knocked him out.
Still, he couldn’t stay down for the count. He had to prepare practices, talk to coaches, check on his players. He says he obsessed about his loss, broke down exactly what happened–and then laughed it off. He joked about it, mainly with Larry Gibson, until it didn’t hurt anymore. “If you don’t laugh about things like this, you’d feel like dying,” O’Neill says. “I don’t fault Martha at all. My whole lifestyle is difficult for people to deal with. I think she just got tired of it all. But except for my son, Sean, my work is most important. I wasn’t willing to change that. We had a great 15-year run and life goes on.”
Regardless of his schedule, O’Neill drops whatever he’s doing every couple weeks to spend time with Sean, who now lives in Tucson with his mother, taking in a playoff game here or a vacation to Disney World there. At 11 Sean already wears size 131/2 shoes, and he’s got game, but he’s more into baseball then basketball at the moment.
O’Neill bought video phones for his and Sean’s daily calls, and he sends his son lots of faxes, mostly silly things like pictures of dad’s head pasted on the bodies of muscular models. The distance has made the dream house unnecessary; O’Neill now rents it out and lives in a condo. “There was nothing to come home to,” he says. “It was just a place to live. I didn’t eat one meal there. If I had a place to sleep at the office, I’d stay there.”
According to the Tennessean’s Climer, a fellow reporter once asked O’Neill, “Can you recruit at a so-called football school?” His reply: “I recruited players to Marquette, where Jeff Dahmer was cutting up people down the street. Hell, yeah! I can recruit.” Among his prizes at Tennessee were Tony Harris, the guy who got the big box of notes, and Brandon Wharton, who’d go on to be All-Southeastern Conference. But can he recruit at a so-called academic school? Several of the candidates who turned down the job in ’93 cited inflexible admission standards as a problem. Duke and Stanford, both academic schools that manage to field competitive teams, allow athletics special admittance standards. “The way it’s set up now, [NU] couldn’t have gotten [former Duke stars] Bobby Hurley or Christian Laettner into school,” one candidate told the Chicago Tribune at the time.
“There’s a smaller pool,” O’Neill admits, “but it defines recruiting more. There’s certain guys that I know can’t make it here, which in my mind makes it easier. What makes it hard is that Northwestern has no tradition at all to bank on.”
In fact, losing is the closest thing to a tradition that Northwestern men’s basketball has. Students rarely attend games, and even the student fan club, the Wild Ones, would be more appropriately called the Mild Ones. NU went 7-22 the season before O’Neill took over. In its only two winning seasons since 1970, it went 18-12, in 1982-’83, and 15-14, in 1993-’94. And the closest the Wildcats have ever come to the Big Dance was in 1939, when the very first NCAA tournament was played at Northwestern’s old Patten Gymnasium before a crowd of 5,500 people. “This is the worst big-time program ever,” O’Neill says. “When you’re in a major conference like this and you fall to low single digits, you’ve really got a problem. You can take over 11 or 12 wins and get good in a hurry, but you’ve got a serious problem if you’re in the low single digits.”
The first thing O’Neill did at Northwestern was clean house–something he’s good at. In his three years at Tennessee, a dozen players left the Volunteers, including Ed Gray, who’d led the team in scoring before O’Neill arrived. Gray went on to become 1997 PAC-10 player of the year at Berkeley and a first-round draft pick for the Atlanta Hawks. O’Neill says there were five or six that he simply kicked off, for various reasons he won’t divulge, and that he asked Gray to leave. “Some of those guys were really talented players,” he says, “but I didn’t think they were good people to build a program around.”
When he arrived in Evanston, O’Neill immediately made it clear to two players that they would not see much action in the near or distant future: Terence Avery and Jonah Batambuze, both freshmen who’d been recruited by Byrdsong, who was an assistant at Arizona with O’Neill. “I told them the realism of whether they were going to play or not,” O’Neill says. “I told both of them if they wanted to be participants and play a lot of minutes, it wouldn’t be here. They probably shouldn’t have been recruited in this league in the first place. Obviously, Northwestern was their only Big Ten offer. They were in over their heads, basketball-wise.”
Avery transferred to Indiana State, Batambuze to Lewis University. “He was an asshole to me,” Batambuze says. “He doesn’t treat a lot of people with respect. He told me my family should be ashamed of me and basically said I’m worthless. At first I got down on myself, but after a while it went in one ear and out the other. But I wasn’t going to get up and curse him out. That’s not the way I was brought up.”
Led by O’Neill’s very first NU recruit, freshman shooting guard Sean Wink, and fifth-year senior Evan Eschmeyer, the Wildcats improved to 10-17 last season, and one of their wins was an upset of defending Big Ten champion Minnesota. One of O’Neill’s less publicized strengths is his ability to build a solid defense. When he took over Tennessee, the team had the ninth-best scoring defense in the SEC; after one season under O’Neill, the Volunteers led the conference in that category. Last season, the Wildcats ranked high in several key defensive categories among Big Ten schools: they had the third-best rebounding margin, the third-best scoring defense, the fourth-best record for defensive rebounds, and led the conference by holding opponents to an average of only 27.3 rebounds a game.
“He’s a very good coach, especially defensively,” South Carolina’s Fogler says. “The media doesn’t give him enough credit for his coaching because they become so consumed with his personality. But coaches who coach against Kevin understand how difficult his teams are to play.”
This season–which started off with an incredibly embarrassing home-court loss to Maine on November 17 and an 18-point rout by Oakland on the 21st–O’Neill still has Eschmeyer, who’s considered one of the best centers in the country. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility earlier this year and has decided to postpone a possible NBA career because he thinks Northwestern finally has a chance to make its first-ever NCAA tournament. O’Neill also has three freshmen who he says have a good chance of starting, including point guard David Newman, an Iowa Mr. Basketball and the prize of the new recruiting class. “It took me two years at Marquette and three years at Tennessee to get the right point guard,” O’Neill says. “If you’re going to have any chance to compete at the highest level, you have to have a great point guard. We have that coming in David Newman.
“If you’re counting on freshmen to make a big impact, you’re putting yourself in a really precarious position,” he admits. “But when you’re in our position as a basketball program, you really have no choice.”
And he still has Sean Wink, who managed to make his own impact as a freshman. He sank 86 three-pointers, more than anyone else in the Big Ten, and was ranked 18th in three-point shooting nationally. Perhaps more important, he also showed himself to be O’Neill’s kind of player. After spending part of the summer of 1997 training at Northwestern, Wink returned home to Brea, California, skipping a couple workouts. O’Neill called him there and told him he wasn’t cut out to play Division I basketball and should consider attending a junior college. Wink says he had momentary doubts, but decided he wasn’t about to let O’Neill bully him into anything. “I talked to my parents, and they said O’Neill misjudged me,” Wink says. “Coach kept saying, ‘Don’t come, don’t come.’ But I kept saying, ‘Oh, I’m coming.’ I think he liked that kind of prick attitude.”
Early last season as a home game against Seton Hall neared its final minutes, and Northwestern desperately needed a clutch bucket, Wink hadn’t made a shot all night. As he passed the coach by, O’Neill sarcastically asked, “Are you going to make a shot tonight?” Wink replied, “I’m going to make my shots.” During the next time-out, O’Neill told the team: “Don’t worry, Sean’s going to hit a big shot for us.”
With about two minutes remaining, Wink nailed a three-pointer, and the Wildcats went on to win 51-44. “He loves the head games,” Wink says. “He knows exactly what he’s doing at all times.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Nathan Mandell: uncredited cover photo; William Gates; Shannon Smith; Sean Wink; 3 misc. photos.