Archdeacon: Former Sinclair coach ‘wanted to bring out the best in you’

The 1972-73 Sinclair Tartans coached by Kevin O’Neill (kneeling in front of team). CONTRIBUTED
The 1972-73 Sinclair Tartans coached by Kevin O’Neill (kneeling in front of team). CONTRIBUTED

So much for that old proverb, the one Shania Twain once made a popular song:

“Dance With the One That Brought You.”

On that February night in 1990, Kevin O’Neill left his wife Connie at a dance they had gone to at St. Mary’s Church in Franklin and returned home to watch Buster Douglas challenge the unbeaten and seemingly-unstoppable heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in title fight at the Tokyo Dome .

Tyson was a 42-1 to favorite and Ron Culver, the sports book manager at the Mirage in Las Vegas, summed it up for almost everyone:

“This fight reminds me of Secretariat running against a Clydesdale.”

With a laugh, O’Neill once recounted that dance floor exit to me: "My wife said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ And I said, ‘I’m going home to watch the fight!’

“She told me, ‘Buster’s going to get beat.’ And I told her, ‘Well then, he’s going to have to get beat in front of me.’”

He knew Buster better than most.

A decade earlier, O’Neill was the successful basketball coach at Sinclair Community College when Buster showed up in the Tartan gym one day after playing a season of junior college basketball in Coffeyville, Kansas. Before that he’d been on the Columbus Linden McKinley team that had won the state title and was ranked second in the nation.

“I had the Davis twins from McKinley, so I’d seen Buster play,” O’Neill said. “Then he shows up and says he’s not going back to Kansas. He wanted to come back here and asked if I had any room. I said certainly because he was quite a player.”

And sure enough, in his one season (1979-80) at Sinclair, Douglas averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds a game, made the NJCAA All-Region XII team and was named the Tartans' MVP.

In those days, Connie said her husband’s coaching style reminded several folks of Indiana’s Bobby Knight. He was hard-nosed and demanding.

“Back then I have a vivid memory of my dad kicking Buster in the (butt) during their suicide drills up and down the court,” said Kevin, one of O’Neill’s seven children. “Dad got in people’s faces. He demanded the best out of them.”

A photo from about a dozen years ago at a minor league baseball game: Kevin O’Neill (in blue shirt), grandson Ryan  O’Neill and Kevin’s wife Connie (in green with glasses). Ryan is now a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. CONTRIBUTED
A photo from about a dozen years ago at a minor league baseball game: Kevin O’Neill (in blue shirt), grandson Ryan O’Neill and Kevin’s wife Connie (in green with glasses). Ryan is now a sophomore at the University of Kentucky. CONTRIBUTED

And that night in Tokyo, Buster may have channeled just a little of his old Sinclair coach against Tyson, who was coming on strong by the end of Round 8.

But then something kicked in with Buster and in Round 10, he did the unthinkable. He knocked Tyson out in what remains one of – if not the – greatest upsets in sports history.

In 2012, O’Neill and Douglas – who had chosen boxing rather than a basketball offer to Mercyhurst University after Sinclair – were honored before a Tartans' game.

“He was a good man,” Douglas said of O’Neill that day. “He was a good coach. He was MY coach.”

And that’s how a lot of people are remembering O’Neill today.

He died last Thursday at age 85. His funeral mass will be Wednesday morning at 10:30 at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Springboro. Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetery in Dayton.

O’Neill is survived by Connie, his wife of 44 years, and the seven children: Patrick, Timothy, Kevin, Shannon, Terry, Brendan and Catherine, as well as 13 grandchildren, his sister Judy, brother Bill and many other relatives, friends and former players.

O’Neill coached at Belmont High School early in his career and he concluded it as a volunteer coach with the Springboro High School girls team.

In between, he coached 12 seasons at Sinclair – he also taught there 26 years – and he’s best known for those days.

His 203-106 record makes him the winningest coach, percentage-wise (65.7), in Sinclair history.

He’s No. 3 in career wins behind current coach Jeff Price (307) and Don Cundiff (305.)

His 1969-70 team – back when the Sinclair team was known as the Satans not the Tartans — started the season 13-0.

“Everybody always sees Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams on TV and praises them,” Price once told me. “But there are a lot of really good coaches out there at the smaller college level who don’t get the recognition they deserve. Coach O’Neill was one of them. He was a great coach who had an impact on so many guys.”

The 1978-79 Sinclair Tartans with Coach Kevin O’Neill (back row on right). CONTRIBUTED
The 1978-79 Sinclair Tartans with Coach Kevin O’Neill (back row on right). CONTRIBUTED

Monday night Connie said that “impact” extended beyond the court, as well:

"A lot of people knew him in other ways. He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 40 years and along the way he helped a lot of people in their recovery. He looked out for a lot of them.

“So, I guess in that respect, he still was a coach.”

Proud Yankee fan

O’Neill was an Irish Catholic who was born in New York City and remained proud of his roots.

After he graduated from Archbishop Stepinac High in White Plains, N.Y., he served in the Army, got his undergrad degree at the University of Dayton and his master’s at Xavier. He and his first wife, Nancy, had four children and then he and Connie had three.

“He remained a degenerate New York Yankees fans his whole life,” said his son Kevin, who lives in Atlanta. “His favorite player was Hank Bauer because he had been in the service, too.”

As son Brendan, an engineer in Indianapolis, put it: “He let anyone know that he was from New York, whether they asked or not.” He told how his dad took him to his first game at Yankee Stadium in ’1950-something."

A lover of all sports, once he retired from the classroom at Sinclair, O’Neill became the starter at NCR Country Club.

“I’m sure he did that so he could play there,” Kevin said. “He loved the game and the trash talk that could come with it. It was his way of taking you in. He could take the (crap) talk too, as long as it didn’t get personal. That was out of bounds to him and he’d surely take your money then.”

Brenden said his dad was "the fastest golfer I was ever around.

“If I was speaking at funeral, I’d tell them how Christ might welcome him into heaven with a round of golf, but by the fourth tee Jesus would be taking too many practice swings and Dad would have to leave him.”

Helping others

Brendan remembered another story about his father, though he said he’s not sure if it came before AA or not:

"He was going to Mass and got pulled over. The cop asked him where he was going and he said he was headed to Mass.

“The cop said, 'Well, I don’t want to keep anyone from getting to church on time,” and my dad said: ‘I don’t care if I get a ticket or not – I’m going to church!’

“So the cop said, ‘OK, I’ll be right back’ and brought him his ticket. That was Dad. He wasn’t good on the sweetness. But it was inside of him.”

That especially showed as he helped other guys in recovery.

“He became a life coach before that word came into vogue,” Kevin said. "He helped a lot of guys who thought they were unworthy of being helped. He wanted to bring out the best in you. He’d always say, ‘Hey, it’s never too late!’

“His thing was, ‘It’s OK if you fall, as long as you try to get back up again. You gotta pick yourself up.’”

And that was the case with Buster that night in Tokyo. With 10 seconds left in Round 8, Tyson dropped him to the canvas with a right uppercut. Buster got up and though still hurt, came back in the ninth. In the 10th he flattened Tyson, who ended up crawling on his hands and knees on the canvas, dazed, his mouthpiece dangling from his lips as he was counted out.

As O’Neill watched proudly back home, Buster – having embodied his old coach’s pick yourself up mantra – was dancing around the ring with the one who brought him.

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