Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy contacted O'Neill on Thursday night to offer him the position, Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor said. At an early morning meeting, Taylor learned O'Neill had already cleaned out his office.
"The fact that he's leaving for an NBA job doesn't surprise me at all," Taylor said. "The fact that he's leaving Sept. 1 surprises me."
Northwestern's dilemma, unbeknownst to team officials, began in July when Isiah Thomas was hired to coach the Indiana Pacers.
Taylor thought he was safe for the season, because O'Neill, who wanted to go the NBA, didn't get the Indiana job.
But Indiana hired two assistant coaches, Jim Stack of the Bulls and Brendan Malone of the Knicks opening up the spot that was offered to O'Neill.
"When the Pacers hired Isiah Thomas we said, 'We're OK; we're set for another year,"' Taylor said. "As with anything in sports, things change day to day, hour to hour, second to second."
The sudden resignation of O'Neill, after the third year of a five-year contract, will probably not affect the team's makeup. Freshmen who signed a letter of intent are locked in for the season, and most teams have their starting squads firmed up.
O'Neill's resignation follows a miserable 5-25 season for the Wildcats, who were winless in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats did go 15-14 in O'Neill's second season, earning a berth in the National Invitation Tournament the third postseason appearance in school history.
But after Northwestern's trip to the NIT behind now NBA center Evan Eschmeyer that year, the Wildcats began to struggle in the Big Ten. Then came the exodus of four players after last season.
The exodus was reminiscent of O'Neill's first three years as coach at Tennessee, when he lost 11 players before coming to Northwestern.
His coaching style was loud and profane. He paced the sidelines, screaming obscenities, mostly at his own players.
O'Neill was an assistant coach at Arizona from 1986-89, where he earned the reputation as one of the nation's most aggressive recruiters.
He then took the head coaching job at Marquette for the 1989-90 season and helped turn the program around, first with an NIT appearance and, three years later, back-to-back NAA tournament berths, including a trip to the final 16.
After a short stint at Florida , where he landed some of the nation's top prep players, O'Neill tried to turn around a Northwestern program known for dwelling near the bottom of the standings.
The team will choose a new head coach within two weeks, Taylor said.
"There were a few foursomes that are now threesomes on the golf course this weekend," Taylor said of his weekend plans. "Thank God for cell phones. I think we may catch some people fishing."
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