July 01-- On Monday, Kevin O'Neill sent out 100 emails of thanks. And goodbye. Some went to the head coaches he worked with like Jimmy Johnson, Nick Saban and Butch Davis. Some went to assistant coaches or doctors from his 44 years as a college and NFL trainer.
Some, too, went to the trainers he worked with, including seven current NFL trainers who once learned under O'Neill. We talk of coaches having trees, like family trees of assistants who worked under them. But as long-time New York Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes said last year when seeing O'Neill's tree of head and assistant trainers: "That's not a tree. It's a forest."
Talent, you see, isn't contained to the field in sports or always visible. It's often found in a back room in good organizations, working behind the scenes, only heard about through the prism of NFL Hall of Famers like Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Jason Taylor appreciating O'Neill's work.
On his first morning of retirement Wednesday, O'Neill talked of winning with Johnson at the University of Miami, the Dallas dynasty, some cringe-worthy Dolphins stories, including losing his job in Bullygate, and his uncertainty for this college season due to the coronavirus.
It started for him in South Florida in 1985 when O'Neill had a job interview with Johnson at UM. It didn't go well. He returned the next day and said he wanted to try it again. Jimmy invited him to a happy hour with the staff that afternoon.
That began a run to a national championship at Miami, three Super Bowls titles in Dallas and eight coaching regimes in 18 Dolphins years. It also confirmed an article he read on how teams won-and lost. He knew trainer wasn't the most or least important job. But the article said how, "each cog of the wheel interacts with the other to make the organization grow," he said. "It spelled out the fact winning football is about these relationships. That's exactly how it is, too."
It worked for O'Neill with Johnson at UM, Dallas and the Dolphins. There was a circle of professionalism, as he saw it, that only got infected by the likes of Dallas owner Jerry Jones' corrosive ego.
"Every year the morning of the draft, we'd go out for a run-Jimmy, Dave (Wannstedt), Butch (Davis), a bunch of us," O'Neill said. "That last year Jimmy didn't come. Jimmy wasn't there waiting in the draft room. We found out Jerry had put a camera in the draft room and, before there was a pick, said to Jimmy, 'I want you to look at me.' He wanted acknowledgment he was building the team. Jerry's ego got in the way of winning."
O'Neill, as you hear, didn't just keep players healthy. A good trainer has a larger role. His close work with players can keep organizations healthy. Or try. O'Neill went to Dolphins coach Cam Cameron in 2008 with a warning that card gambling was, "out of control," by players in the locker room.
"I told him, 'We had a guy that lost $10,000 today,' " O'Neill said. "There's going to be a problem, I said. He made some bland comment about, 'Let's not let this get in the way of preparing for a game.' Next Saturday, guys are running past (Cameron) after practice before a game saying, 'Casino's open!' It fell on deaf ears.
"The last team flight was up against New England or something. A fight broke out in first class. Cam and the GM (Randy Mueller), were sitting at the back of first class. The fight was over the gambling. It was a problem. I talked to guys about it who said, 'If we can't (gamble), it's hard to survive this guy.' " That wasn't a good year."
"My first year with him was probably my toughest in the league," he said. "He was going to test you. Jimmy drew his staff in and made you part of everything and pushed the players hard. (Saban) drew the players in and pushed the staff hard. I'll say this about him. He had 24 assistant coaches, the biggest staff in the league, and he was the most organized guy I ever saw.
"We were running two drills in practice at the same time. We went from guys getting 60 plays a day to over 100 reps. And he kept a journal every day. Who practiced. What he felt about practice. The guy has some organizational skills that are really, really strong. That explains his winning (at Alabama)."
Bill Parcells, too, ran a pro's team. Joe Philbin, though, was lost like Cam Cameron in the role. O'Neill saw that after the first game.
"We go in for the team meeting, waiting for words of wisdom, and this is what he says, 'Guys, I don't want to hurt any feelings, but what we're putting on film now isn't good enough,' " O'Neill said. "I couldn't believe it. I turned to someone and said, 'If you're afraid of hurting feelings, we're in trouble.' "
They were in trouble. O'Neill refused to talk in Philbin's office that first training camp because he was filmed on the "Hard Knocks" HBO show with what he thought was a bad editing job. He'd motion Philbin into the hall to talk. This was the precursor to guard Richie Incognito and tackle Jonathan Martin becoming central figures in Bullygate in 2014 and dragging down a franchise.
"Long before the blow-ups that cost my job, I went up and talked (with Philbin) about some of the issues with Richie," O'Neill said. "There wasn't enough communication. Parcells had his thumb on him. I talked to Jeff (Ireland, Dolphins GM) and Tony (Sparano, coach) that you've got to follow through in working with him.
"I saw him becoming more verbal, jabbing with people. Some was funny. Some was hurtful. This is just the guy Richie is. They brought in a time bomb. It went off when it wasn't controlled. Joe didn't control it and didn't listen to anyone trying to tell him. Unfortunately, for Joe, that's his legacy. And it cost my job."
O'Neill was swept up in the aftermath of Bullygate with some others. He thought it an organizational problem from the top, though. Owner Steve Ross, he said: "I don't think even knew my name when I was fired. He never came through and talked to us. The guy understands money, no doubt. And he knows how to make a great stadium for fans with everything. But winning is the best entertainment. To get that you need good people building good relationships."
The fallout of getting caught up in Bullygate meant O'Neill couldn't find a job. Johnson, Parcells and Wannstedt called schools to help. It took Butch Davis returning to FIU for him to finish the last chapter, as he said, "with some dignity and integrity."
Tuesday was his last day. It came a month later than expected, because he wanted to finish and help implement a 56-page plan at Florida International University for handling the COVID-19 problem. Not that he's overly optimistic about the college season. Twelve football players tested positive at FIU, mirroring numbers at other schools.
"I don't know if they'll have a college football season if this continues," he said. "I know in Conference USA they're planning to do weekly testing and if you get five (positive) tests on a team in a week, you can't play."
For all colleges he said, "At this rate of infection, I'm not sure about the season."
He sat in his home as he talked in his first day of retirement. He has no big plans. He's been to 46 states-and wants to go with his wife, Anne, to the others. He'll be there more for his grownup daughters, McKenzie and Kaitlyn. He was a cog, he knows. And for 44 years a good one.
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