Assuming a program that had gone 5-22 in 1993-94, O'Neill's offensively challenged teams went 36-47 before he abruptly left the program after the 1996-97 season. He'll get his first up-close look at the Big Orange since then when his Southern Cal Trojans host the Vols Saturday at 1:30 Pacific (4:30 Eastern).
Although O'Neill's recruiting skills enabled Tennessee to post four 20-win seasons immediately after he left, he is even better known for his unique way with words. Consider his introductory press conference as UT's head coach on March 28, 1994:
When asked about the challenge of resurrecting a Vol program that hadn't earned an NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years, he matter-of-factly replied: "Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate 17 young men five blocks from the Marquette campus, and we did pretty good there."
After shocking reporters in that first meeting, O'Neill spent the next three years entertaining them with his dry sense of humor. Dubbed "The Quote Doctor," he had the sharp wit and precise timing of a professional comedian. Consider:
Asked about the talent he inherited from Wade Houston, O'Neill replied: "I've looked at a lot of tape and, to be honest, I hope I can't tell anything from those tapes."
Asked about his decision to allow former Vol Chris Brand to rejoin the team, O'Neill deadpanned: "He's the only backcourt player with SEC experience. When he's introduced at least he'll know which circle on the floor to go stand in. We need that."
Noting the muscular frame of Tennessee forward Damon Johnson, O'Neill wisecracked: "He's built like (heavyweight boxing champ) Mike Tyson. He shoots the ball like Mike Tyson, too."
O'Neill also was known for his salty language in those days. During one practice he strung together such an impressive array of cusswords that 7-foot center Steve Hamer began to laugh. Asked later what O'Neill had said, Hamer replied: "I don't think it's printable. I don't even think it's sayable."
O'Neill and current Tennessee head man Bruce Pearl go back a long way - to the days when Pearl was an assistant at Iowa when O'Neill was an assistant at Arizona back in the mid-1980s.
"I followed his career, both in the pros and college," Pearl recalled recently. "He's been a great survivor. Kevin is a great system coach. What he's done, he's done at every level - that is play tough, physical, disciplined man-to-man defense and play patient, disciplined, high-percentage offense. That's who he is, that's what he is.
"I think those are usually the coaches who are most successful, who survive ... the ones who do what they do, know what they do, know who they are and find a way to get their players to believe in it."
That's the kind of strong-willed person Kevin O'Neill always has been. Yet, even after he bolted UT due to friction with athletics director Doug Dickey - one week after Peyton Manning announced he'd return for his senior year as Vol quarterback - O'Neill exhibited his sharp sense of humor.
"Peyton Manning stayed at Tennessee, and I left," he said. "They got the better of that deal."