For Kathy O'Neil, It's a Pleasure

01/25/2010
By From the Lowell Sun

By Lynn Worthy

LOWELL -- Lawyer or basketball coach? It's a simple decision really. You can't show up to a court room in a tee-shirt and shorts, but that's perfect for a basketball court.

Kathy O'Neil made her decision 29 years ago and hasn't regretted it.

The next victory for the UMass Lowell women's basketball team will be career win number 398 for O'Neil, who originally planned to attend law school after graduating from St. Michael's College in 1981.

With the 400-win plateau within earshot, now is an opportunity to reflect on the tenure of a woman who has become a fixture in college basketball in New England.

It seems fitting that the win will come this year. Twenty-five seasons into her career, O'Neil embraced an entirely new offensive system.

This off-season she left behind the traditional system of screens and cuts she'd used for pretty much her entire career in favor of the newfangled dribble-drive motion offense (a perimeter-oriented approach where players have the green light to take their defender off the dribble at any time).

O'Neil just sees it as an everyday part of coaching. She's supposed to push for more from her players as well as from herself and her staff.

"I think there are a lot of great coaches who are far superior to me," O'Neil says. "Some of them don't change and some of them do. All of them are successful. And we needed to change. I hope that I'll always continue to grow and learn. That's what it's about, isn't it?"

The River Hawks continue to show considerable growth from last year's eight-win squad that missed qualifying for the Northeast-10 Conference tournament. They're currently 11-6 overall (7-6 NE-10) with nine games left in the regular season.

Four hundred wins had to seem like a galaxy far away when a 24-year old O'Neil became the head coach at the University of Lowell in 1985. She'd been a graduate assistant basketball coach at St. Michael's, and she served as head field hockey coach for three seasons.

That first year as a head women's basketball coach was rough. Her team went 1-24.

"I will say it's not how you want to come into coaching, but I learned a lot about coaching that year," O'Neil says. "You know what, that team ... I loved that team. We worked really hard. All of us did.

"We weren't the most talented, let's say that."

O'Neil had her squad up to 11 wins the next year, and they were New England Collegiate Conference champions in her fifth season. She won the NECC Coach of the Year award three times (1991, 1995, 1997).

All these years later, the university changed names. The nickname and mascot changed. They compete in a different conference. Members of the school and athletic department administrations have changed.

O'Neil remains a staple. She proudly claims that she wakes up every day and still has "the spring."

Having spent the better part of five seasons around the River Hawks, a few things are evident.

O'Neil loves coaching. I suspect she enjoys the days between games most of all. She enjoys the time spent at practices teaching the game, watching players improve on a daily basis and being there when that light bulb comes on in their mind. That stuff is still fun for her.

In an era when many coaches pledge allegiance to a school for eternity (also known as until a better opportunity comes along), O'Neil is at home in Lowell and with the university.

Just ask her what she likes so much that it could keep her tied to this school for a quarter century. She'll give a list of reasons, and a lot of them have nothing to do with basketball. The location, the diversity of the students and the city, the mission of the school and the work ethic of the students, are all aspects O'Neil names.

I remember when I stopped by O'Neil's office after the end of the 2007-08 season and she was genuinely looking forward to seeing Marty Meehan named the new chancellor. Not because she had to be there, but because she knew it wasn't often the university makes a change like that. She wanted to see the ceremony.

As far as wins go, O'Neil will probably treat 400 like any other win. It takes something more than a win to make her reflect.

"I'll see an alum that has done something and I'm proud of that," O'Neil says. "I'm proud that I was a part of their life. That will make me think.

"The fun part for me now is to see them grow up. Sometimes you think it's never going to happen."

While 400 might not be a milestone O'Neil wants to spend much time thinking about, it's worth acknowledging. Here's to three more wins ... and many more.