To many that theft-in-the-night exit was O'Neill's legacy at UT, but to others it was the talent he assembled that enabled Jerry Green to put together four straight 20-win seasons and four consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. Whichever side you fall on the O'Neill debate, there's no argument that the man who could cuss a blue streak is back in black.
It's a gentler, kinder, smarter O'Neill who is enjoying early success in his first season as head coach of the NBA's Toronto Raptors. He's already exceeded the win total Lenny Wilkins had the entire 2002-2003 campaign and he's doing it without the histrionics he exhibited at Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern. Allegedly, there are still portions of the walls at Thompson-Boling where the paint peels at the mere of O'Neill's name.
"I coach differently than I did in college," O'Neill, 46, said in a recent Sports Illustrated article. "I shout out plays or coverages, but I don't yell at players."
He credits the three years he spent as an NBA assistant first with Jeff Van Gundy in New York and then as defensive specialist with Rick Carlise's Detroit Pistons, as providing the experience he needed to make the dramatic transformation.
"I would have been a miserable failure if I hadn't done it that way," he added.
However, O'Neill is still an early riser and a tireless worker, but with no need to recruit prospects he is focused on breaking down game tape, scripting practices and carefully preparing remarks to his team.
"I write down – word by word — everything I'm going to say to the team, then I CliffsNote it out for myself," O'Neill says. "I never address anything immediately after a game because I don't want to be emotional."
That's quite a change for the man who was noted for shooting from the hip and taking no lip.
One thing O'Neill hasn't changed is his bedrock belief that defense wins basketball games. And his multimillionaire charges are buying into that the philosophy. After finishing 29th in team defense last year under Wilkins, the Raptors are now a solid sixth.
"He's a basketball purist," said Raptor guard Jalen Rose. "We get along so well because he's not here to be the show. He's here to win games."
O'Neill said he deals with the tensions of the League's high-stress environment by attending Mass on a daily basis. (There was no mention of crosses spinning or holy water boiling.) So when is O'Neill happy?
"On the 15th and 30th, when I get to see the direct deposit," he said. "That's whey I'm happy. And maybe during the last five seconds of a game when I think we're going to win. That's the greatest feeling you can have in the world. But it doesn't last long."
Some things never change.