Kevin O'Neill on keeping his job and staying relevant

Kevin O'Neill's USC Trojans had already lost for the final time this season, a 55-40 second-half laugher to UCLA in the opening round of Wednesday's Pac-12 tournament at the Staples Center.

He had just completed his press-conference obligations and his players had just filed onto the team bus to go back home. He was saying his goodbyes to a few conference administrators and making his way -- eventually -- home, too.

Then he was asked a question that stopped his movements for a bit: Would this, this latest debacle, be his last game as USC's basketball coach? Did he fully expect to be back next season for his fourth with the Trojans?

"I'm assuming I'm back," O'Neill said. "I think we'd be having a meeting right now if I wasn't. That's what you would think, right?"

Then he paused and pulled out his BlackBerry.

"Wait a minute," he said. "Let me check my texts."

He scrolled through some of the several-dozen unread e-mails on his phone from the last three hours and smiled.

"I'm back," he pronounced. "I'm back."

It sure seems like it. Despite a program-worst 6-26 record this season and a dreadful 1-19 stretch to end the season, USC athletic director Pat Haden has said over and over this year he has no plans to fire O'Neill. Next season, Haden has said, will be the one on which he's judged -- when he gets three key players back healthy and three transfers newly eligible.

"Pat's been very supportive," O'Neill said Wednesday. "I couldn't ask for people to be more supportive in a tough situation."

A tough situation, the 2011-2012 season certainly was. O'Neill calls it a "bad journey." As he has said, there were a number of games this season where USC literally had no chance to win. He said that made his Trojans essentially irrelevant, a sorry truth for any athlete at any level.

"It's hard to be irrelevant -- for anybody," O'Neill said. "It's hard for actors and actresses, whoever. And it was hard for our team because we became irrelevant as losses mounted and as injuries mounted. I'm not saying the guys on our team became irrelevant.

"But that's not something we ever want to be as a program again. We want to be relevant."

Relevance, O'Neill said, is easy to regain. All the Trojans have to do is win next season, he indicated, and they'll be relevant again. It doesn't even affect recruiting -- O'Neill said he had talked to 15 high-school juniors in the class of 2013 over the past two days and very few of them even knew what USC's current record was.

His pitch? "I tell them that they can help us not happen ever again."

It's a virtual guarantee that USC will be better next season -- significantly better, even. But for O'Neill to keep his job this time next year? It'll take more than just twice as many wins as this year. It might even take more than three times as many wins as this year.

"I would think we have to win," he said Wednesday when asked that question."I don't know the exact number (of wins), but I would think we have to be in the mix to be an NCAA tournament team.

"That will be our goal, to be in the NCAA tournament. And I think we'll have a chance."