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Longtime coach John O’Neill retiring

Jamahl Mosley has carried lessons learned in high school, the principles John O’Neill preached more than two decades ago at Rancho Buena Vista High, throughout his playing career and into the NBA.

“I can’t describe how much John has meant to me,” said Mosley, head coach of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

“After moving from Milwaukee in the eighth grade, my first organized basketball experience was with John. He introduced me to the game. He taught all his players how to win. He taught us the right way.

“I know this sounds crazy, but the things I learned in high school are the same things I teach in the NBA. The fundamentals of the game haven’t changed.”

O’Neill, 78, announced his retirement after more than 40 years as a coach — 12 of those years at Rancho Buena Vista, the last 20 at Palomar College.

He leaves the game with a 623-486 record, including 218-129 at RBV and a pair of San Diego Section CIF Division I championships — 1994-95 and 1996-97. His 1997-98 team went 27-3, losing in the playoff semifinals.

In 20 years at Palomar College, he was 280-278 with four conference titles. His final team went 17-8.

“I’ve had a great run, but it’s time to walk away,” O’Neill said. “Don’t know what I’m going to do because I don’t golf, play tennis or jog.”

O’Neill, a Pepperdine graduate, coached one year at West Torrance High, a year at South Torrance and seven years at Bonita before being hired at RBV as the school’s first basketball coach when the school opened in 1987.

“I was at a Bobby Knight clinic in San Diego when someone said there was a new school looking for a coach,” O’Neill said.

“On the way home, we went looking for the school. The area was beautiful and the school was still being built.

“I got the job, and we went 5-23 my first season.”

His run at RBV finished with five straight league championships — all 20-plus-win seasons.

O’Neill and his family lived across the street from RBV and Mosley said he’d stop by the house, get the keys to the gym, play, and work on his game.

“Couldn’t do that today,” Mosley said. “A coach trusting his guys with the keys to the gym? We didn’t realize how special that was.

“John taught us the right way. He taught defense, how to slide, how to close out. He taught John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. He taught the principles of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.

“He taught us how to win. More importantly, he taught us how to win the right way.

“His teams were family.”

No less than a dozen of O’Neill’s former players and assistant coaches have sprouted from his tree and became coaches.

The list includes Mosley, and his close friend and former teammate Aaron Abrams, who is the head coach at RBV.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts played a season for O’Neill at RBV.

Chris Featherly (Orange Glen), Chris Kroesch (Mission Hills girls/Palomar College women’s assistant), Dante Carey (San Marcos) and Anthony Bolton (Vista) all played for O’Neill at Palomar.

Terry Miller was O’Neill’s No. 1 assistant at RBV and followed him as head coach.

Scott Ogden (Carlsbad), Brad Hollingsworth (Calvin Christian), Ryan Meier (La Jolla Country Day/Mount Miguel) and Fentriss Winn (Saddleback College) all coached with O’Neill at Palomar.

“John played a big role in what I was as a player and what I’ve become as a coach,” Featherly said. “He was a tough, hard-nosed coach.

“He was demanding. You were on time, you were dressed properly, your toes were on the line when drills started. Your footwork had to be right. It was a military style, and we loved it.”

Hollingsworth, now the athletic director at Oceanside High, was O’Neill’s assistant for five seasons at Palomar.

“I remember John taking me behind the bleachers at a practice and telling me if I wasn’t going to do things right, pay attention to detail, I better turn in my stuff,” Hollingsworth said.

“He took a chance on me, so I fell in line. He was passionate about every drill, every possession. It was go-go-go, never stop at practices.

“His mind is so quick. I thought I knew the game, but I was two steps behind. The simple things were so important.

“He held everyone — coaches and players — accountable. And he was brutally honest, sometimes with the language of a longshoreman.

“Coaching with John was exhausting. But it was also so rewarding.”

Before O’Neill made it official, word of his retirement leaked out.

About 100 former players and coaches attended Palomar’s final home game of the season, a 63-52 win over Cerritos on Feb. 25.

All players, coaches and supporters are invited to Oggi’s on Melrose in Vista on Sunday from 2-5 p.m.

Kroesch was one of those in attendance at the final game at Palomar and one who plans to attend Sunday.

“John O’Neill means the world to me,” Kroesch said. “I loved playing against his teams in high school and playing for him at Palomar.

“He’s an incredible coach and person. I loved going to his office and picking his brain. And he was always in his office.

“If he had a 6 p.m. practice, he’d be in the office watching film at 11 a.m. John O’Neill was a grinder.

“Quite simply, he was a coach’s coach.”

The O’Neill file

Overall record: 623-486

Record at Palomar College: 280-278 (4 conference championships)

Record at Rancho Buena Vista: 218-129 (2 CIF championships)

Record as a HS coach: 343-208