No Progress With Darrin Horn
Senior Night in Columbia, SC Wednesday Evening saw the last game for South Carolina Gamecock Malik Cooke at The Colonial Life Arena. Cooke, a transfer from Nevada, did what he typically has done in the 2011-2012 season. The senior scored 11 points and had 4 assists and was key in keeping the Gamecocks in a game with a much more talented Mississippi State basketball team. No one will doubt that this was Cooke's last game in Columbia, but those basketball fans in the Palmetto State now will wait and see if this was the last game for Darrin Horn at Colonial Life Arena.
By 2007 it was a given that many Gamecock fans had grown tired of head coach Dave Odom. While Odom had won 2 NIT Championships with the Gamecocks and taken USC to one NCAA Appearance, the energy behind Odom had worn off and Gamecock fans were looking for someone to take their program to the next level. Prior to the end of the 2007-2008 season, it was announced Odom would not be back for a year number eight.
Odom officially made the announcement on January 18, 2008. This gave South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman plenty of time to come up with a portrait of what South Carolina's next basketball coach should be. Fans at the time had seemed to grown tired of landing older coaches who were using USC as a place to retire. Lou Holtz spent his last year in Columbia and his final 3 seasons were not all that impressive. At the time Steve Spurrier had just come off a 6-6 season and there was a vocal minority who were tiring of the Ol' Ball Coach. Hyman took note of this and it appeared hiring a young and energetic coach was exactly what South Carolina would get.
Early on two names seemed to pop up in the coaching search the most. The first was Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel, who was in year two in Norman. Capel led the Sooners to 23 wins at the end of the 2008 season and had just finished a nice four year run at Virginia Commonwealth. The other name was Capel's successor Anthony Grant, who had led VCU to 52 wins in his first two seasons. Capel seemed to be Hyman's first choice, but he would decide to stay in Norman. Most believe Anthony Grant took his name off the South Carolina coaching search list because he didn't want to have to compete with his mentor Billy Donovan at Florida each year. It was obvious with the names being tossed around that Hyman was going after youth in this search.
Darrin Horn's name was not one that appeared on the radar early on following Odom's announcement. Horn was in year five at Western Kentucky and had not led the Hilltoppers to a NCAA Tournament. For those who are unfamiliar with the Hilltopper program, it is without a doubt one of the most tradition rich midmajor programs in College Basketball. WKU is a program that has been to 30 NCAA Tournaments and ranks 8th all time in winning percentage in the NCAA. The school takes such pride in its basketball program that it's logo is red towell in honor of former coach E.A. Diddle who carried a red towel with him at all games. The fact that Horn had not taken WKU to a NCAA appearance in his first 4 seasons wasn't making many in Bowling Green, KY happy, but as a former Hilltopper player Horn was still a popular man.
Horn really started to make a name for himself when his WKU team upset 5 seed Drake in the 2008 tournament and made it to the Sweet 16 by beating 13 seed San Diego in the Round of 32. This tournament run showed Hyman and fans everything they wanted in a coach. Horn was young(35 at the time), energetic, and ran a fun, fast pressing attack. There was little doubt this was the Gamecocks guy and with the help of former Gamecock Coach Eddie Fogler, Hyman brought Darrin Horn to Columbia on April1, 2008.
Horn's press conference made noise when he took a shot at instate rival Clemson. He also spoke of building a fence around the State and keeping all the top starts instate, as well as bringing in top stars from around the Southeast. Horn mentioned how he believed his WKU teams had more talent than the Gamecock team currently had and how he was going to change that. After all Horn was brought in to take USC to the next level and get them past the NIT tournaments fans were sick of.
It didn't take long into his tenure that Horn would make a critical mistake. Darius Morrow, a Dave Odom recruit, was told by Darrin Horn that he should not expect to play many minutes at South Carolina. Morrow wasn't the kind of talent Horn was looking to sign in his first class and Horn's attitude towards him seemed to anger many coaches in the Atlanta, GA area. This anger has remained towards Horn and the South Carolina Basketball program and since then Horn has been black-balled from the Atlanta coaching community. An important recruiting area for the Gamecocks is basically dead because of Horn's dealing with Darius. For what its worth Morrow would end up attending East Carolina and in four seasons has averaged double digits in scoring each year, except his freshman year when he averaged 9.7 points per game. Morrow has also proven to be an accurate shooter, with a career FG % over 50%.
The loss of Morrow and the support of the Atlanta coaches was forgotten early on because Horn's first year did bring plenty of energy to Columbia. With the talented and exciting Devan Downey leading the way, the Gamecocks were able to finish 21-10 and win their 2nd SEC East Division Title in school history. Players like Downey, Fredrick, Archie, and Mike Holmes gave the Gamecocks a look of a NCAA Tournament team. Horn's fast pace attack finished 20th in the NCAA in points scored at 78 points per game and for SEC games the Colonial Life Arena responded with a rowdy atmosphere led by the "Garnet Army" student section. While the Gamecocks came a bit short of making the NCAA Tournament in 2009(mostly due to a weak OOC schedule), Gamecock fans showed support by ending up 31st nationally(5th in the SEC) in attendance with 11,776 fans on average attending games. Most SEC games saw crowds near capacity in the near 18,000 seat Colonial Life Arena.
The 2009-2010 season came with huge expectations for the Gamecocks. The only key loss from the previous year's SEC East Championship team was Zam Fredrick, but few doubted the Gamecocks couldn't overcome that loss with Downey and Archie coming back. The season started strong as the Gamecocks won their first 4 games,but in game 5 against Miami things started to chance for the worse for the Gamecocks and Horn. With just over 13 minutes left in the first half, South Carolina led Miami 9-2 when Archie suffered a season ending knee injury. The injury devastated the Gamecocks not only for that game, but for the rest of the season. It's possible this injury also devastated the future of Darrin Horn since South Carolina was 25-10 before the injury and is 36-52 since.
The end of year number two under Horn really was all about what spectacular plays could Downey make and what big point numbers he could put up. Downey amazed crowds and delivered every night, but it wasn't enough as South Carolina ended the year 15-16. Horn was given a pass in year two by most because of the injury to one of the team's most important players. It also didn't help that prior to SEC play, junior Mike Holmes was dismissed for violating team rules.
Year three for Horn was to be a rebuilding season and most fans accepted this. Downey had graduated and South Carolina was playing a team that was filled with freshmen and sophomores. Sam Muldrow was really the only senior contributor for the team in 2010-2011. Transfer Murphy Holloway had to sit out the season after leaving Ole Miss, but having a talented big man on the bench gave South Carolina hope for the future. Fans still came out and supported Horn as South Carolina ranked 41st nationally(6th in the SEC) out of 341 schools. More fans actually showed up to watch South Carolina home games than Florida home games in 2011.
The hope that a young team would grow and develop to bring a promise to year number four under Horn was lost soon after year three. Murphy Holloway, Stephen Spinella, and Ramon Galloway would not be coming back for the 2011-2012 season. This meant that once again South Carolina would be forced to field a young basketball team, something fans were not wanting to hear in year four.
This season has been possibly the most humiliating year for South Carolina Basketball in many years. The season started with losses to Tennessee State and Elon and a near loss to Mississippi Valley State. Any hope for a good season was gone before December even came around for the Gamecocks. The lack of fan support has been like no other year. In December Ohio State came to town and painted it Scarlet and then Kentucky came and played a home game in Columbia. Fan support was so bad that Tennessee's official website last week encouraged Vol fans to fill the empty seats of Colonial Life Arena and "paint the town orange". You know support is down when another school's marketing department starts to take advantage of low attendance at your school.
Fans have every right to show their displeasure at this point. The high energy that Horn brought to Columbia in April of 2008 has been lost. The team that ranked 20th in scoring in the 2008-2009 season now ranks #296 in scoring in 2011-2012. The fast paced Darrin Horn attack has become a mid court attack that is slow and has many fans confused as to what is trying to be done. At times it seems like Horn's mission is to milk the clock as much as possible to avoid a bigger beat down. Why the change in coaching philosophy? If the excuse is the talent isn't there to run the fast pace trapping attack, then that's on the coach since its year four and he should have players to run his system. If the excuse is that the team is young, then shouldn't you lose with a style you believe in so you can develop the youth to run that system by the time they are upperclassmen? For the football fans out there, this would be like Mike Leach in year four at Washington State running a power I attack, something most would be shocked to see happen.
Mike Anderson, who runs a similar full court pressing attack, is not backing away from his approach in year 1 despite only having 9 scholarship players on his roster. Anderson knows his first team at Arkansas will take some hits early on, but by year four his system should be run to perfection because they have been practicing and playing it for four seasons. This is how a program is developed and four years in Horn isn't creating a true identity for the Gamecock program.
There just isn't a legit argument anyone could make for Horn that the program is progressing. South Carolina's record has gotten worse each year under Horn. From 21 wins in year 1 to what is certain to be at least 20 losses in year 4. Even during the season the Gamecocks aren't showing progress. The last 3 Darrin Horn teams only have a record of 5-24 in the months of February and March. If a team is progressing shouldn't they be better by the end of the year than they were at the start? South Carolina is by far the worst SEC team in the last 2 months of the season since 2010. Horn has no postseason wins at South Carolina. Say what you want about Dave Odom, but at least he proved he could win big when tournament time came around.
Not only is Horn not showing progress, but he's also losing to teams that a program like South Carolina has no business losing to. In four seasons Horn has lost to five Southern Conference teams and one Ohio Valley Conference team. Upsets do happen from time to time, but this has become a trend with Horn's teams. These are RPI killers that destroy a team's hope for postseason play before conference play even starts. The loss to Davidson in year 1 at home is excusable given the fact that the Wildcats had one of the nation's top talents in Curry. Losing to small private schools like Furman, Wofford, and Elon is not acceptable for a school that has far more resources than those schools will ever have. These losses have killed any momentum the team had going into a season and have killed Gamecock fans interest early on.
This is a poorly coached team. One of the signs of a well coached team is when you see a group of guys pass the ball and set up plays for other team members. You don't even have to watch a Gamecock game to note this isn't happening. South Carolina currently ranks #325 in the NCAA in assists. If you aren't setting up plays and playing team ball, you aren't being coached well. If USC had a star player that could score 20 points a game, then maybe this stat could be overlooked, but as we all know this isn't the case.
On the court results might be forgiven if Horn was a figure inside the Columbia Community that fans could get behind. Problem is though that early on Horn showed he wasn't interested in building many relationships away from the court. Early on in his career Horn ended a long relationship previous Gamecock coaches had with the Columbia Tip Off Club. This group is one of the most visible basketball clubs in The State of South Carolina and had a strong relationship with the USC basketball program prior to Horn. Ending this relationship wouldn't hurt Horn so much if he were winning 20+ games a year, but it's little things like this that will kill support when you aren't winning.
Horn also missed 2 consecutive call in show appearances that he was scheduled to appear on across the Gamecock Network. This resulted in WNKT 107.5(Gamecock Flagship Station) Station Manager Brent Johnson to come out and release the following statement on Horn missing the call in shows "The expectation of the fans, advertisers, and 107.5 The Game listeners is "Carolina Calls with Darrin Horn" will feature Coach Horn," the statement read. "At a time when the fans have many legitimate questions to be answered, it is more important than ever for Coach Horn to be available. We pay a substantial amount of money for exclusive Gamecock programming. Coach Horn has missed two consecutive call-in shows and a total of three this year. Should unavoidable conflicts arise, we have the ability to pre-record his segments. We have a great love and respect for the University and consider it an honor to be their flagship station. That being said, we still have a job to do for the fans and take it very seriously."
Horn's issues with local media members has spread across to multiple newspapers and radio personalities in South Carolina. Former Gamecock and New York Giant Corey Miller has a program on AM 560 in Columbia, SC. Miller has been very outspoken against Horn for the last couple seasons and doesn't shy away from his opinion. Miller's opinion obviously got the attention of Darrin Horn and Eric Hyman because those two had an odd meeting with Miller a few weeks ago to discuss their vision of Gamecock Basketball. I personally have been following sports for nearly 3 decades and I can't remember a time where a basketball coach at any level has felt the need to have a meeting with a local radio personality because of criticism. Typically you would expect a coach and AD to focus on their jobs and not what is being said on an AM radio station. This was an odd meeting and it didn't seem to accomplish anything other than confusing USC fans as to why such a meeting would take place.
Few in the media are sticking up for Horn any longer. Even the biggest supporters of USC athletics on the air and in print are no longer backing the current Gamecock Basketball coach. When you lose the media and fan support it typically signals that the end is near. Still, it doesn't seem like a change is coming and a few reasons.
The biggest reason seems to be the $2.4 million buyout that exists on Horn's contract. After Horn flirted with the Xavier job at the end of his first year, a large buyout was put into his contract to make a commitment to Horn. Financially, it seems many believe it makes sense to keep Horn for another season. On paper, maybe those who state this are correct, but as we look deeper in the situation are they? Most would agree that only about 3,000 fans are attending Gamecock games this year. This means there are about 14,000-15,000 empty seats at most games. Expect those numbers to get much worse if Horn is kept for another year. If a legit 12,000 were attending games in 2009, that means there has been a drop off of 9,000 fans attending games. I'm not a mathematician, but let's assume that with a ticket and food the average Gamecock fans spends $20 a game. This means that each game near $180,00 is being lost each game, $3.6 Million a year for a 20 game home schedule. This does not take into consideration the amount of money spent on Gamecock Club fees.
Money is also possibly being lost in potential advertisement for South Carolina Basketball. When fans aren't showing up to the Colonial Life Arena, they also aren't showing up to The Vista after the games. When money is being lost by businesses around the Arena, those businesses aren't going to be able to spend as much money advertising for USC basketball. Plus, those fans that attend games are more than likely to go out for a victory drink after a feel good victory. The economy of Columbia is being hurt by the lack of fan support at Colonial Life Arena and this is something that has to be taken into consideration.
Merchandise sales for basketball are also down. When teams win, merchandise sales are going to go up. How many Gamecock Fans purchased a t-shirt celebrating an 11 win season in football this year? How many purchased some sort of merchandise showing off the Capital One Bowl Victory over Nebraska? I'm not sure there isn't a Gamecock fan that doesn't have an "Avatar Spirit Stick" t-shirt from their first Baseball National Championship. Even the basketball program saw merchandise sales go up after winning each of their 2 NIT Championships under Odom. Right now money can't be made off of basketball merchandise, but imagine the amount of t-shirts that would be sold if the program had a "2012 March Madness" shirt on sale. Following Horn's first year the "Garnet Army" t-shirts were in high demand by non students. Winning ball games helps in merchandise sales and anyone in the USC marketing department knows this.
Money seems to be the biggest concern, but the other excuse as to why Horn should get a year five is because of the thought that South Carolina can not land a good coach. This idea has been proven incorrect in the past. Two of South Carolina's last three coaching hires were big names. Eddie Fogler was the National Coach of the Year at Vanderbilt prior to coming to South Carolin. Dave Odom was a proven coach in the highest profile conference in college basketball. Odom won the ACC Coach of the Year Award in 1991, 1994, and 1995. Heck, even Steve Newton had two OVC Coach of the Year Awards on his resume prior to coming to Columbia.
The Colonial Life Arena is without a doubt one of the top 4 facilities in the SEC. Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville is known as the "Basketball Palace of Mid America", having been in that arena and CLA they are basically the same place. As proven by attendance numbers, South Carolina has upper tier fan support as the Gamecocks have ranked in the top half of the SEC in attendance every season since the new arena was built a decade ago. Certainly, Kentucky and Arkansas have the top fan support in the SEC, but outside of that no one really outranks the Gamecocks. Tennessee has seen some nice attendance numbers recently, but that's due to the Vols having a very nice run over the last 5-6 years. Even last season the Gamecocks had higher attendance numbers than a championship program like Florida.
There is absolutely no reason a coach can look at South Carolina and see failure as the only option. Under Andy Kennedy Ole Miss has averaged 20 wins a season and has never had a losing record. If Ole Miss, a school with far less fan support and a bad facility can have this kind of success then why can't South Carolina? Ole Miss doesn't have some sort of strong, elite status in college basketball to build a program off of, but they still seem to always field a competitive program. South Carolina is a sleeping giant that nearly woke up 15 years ago under Eddie Fogler, but losing to Coppin State and Richmond in the first year of the NCAA Tournament put the program back to sleep. The potential is there for a solid program to be built and its not happening under Horn.
The hope for the program is gone and will fall even further if Horn is kept for a year five. Personally, I've never seen the lack of hope this bad. Steve Newton had a terrible two seasons, but he was quickly let go before hope was lost. Eddie Fogler was brought in and created excitement even with the down first two seasons. Fans were willing to give Fogler time because he was a proven winner and he was bringing in some big time recruits like McDonald's All American B.J. McKie. As bad as McKie's last season was in Columbia, hope still existed because Fogler was bringing in another McDonald's All American in Rolando Howell. Under Horn there isn't a reason for fans to get excited. There are no big time recruits coming in and each season is getting worse. Can it get much worse than it is now? Maybe not, but the ceiling with Horn isn't much better than a NIT bubble team.
There is also a thought that maybe Horn will be kept as coach, but he will be forced to make staff changes. While this would be a sign that changes are being made would it really work? It's going to be hard to find any good assistants that want to come on staff and coach under a man who would enter 2012-2013 on the top of most everyone's hotseat list. Plus, you are bringing in assistants with a different style of coaching than what this group of young players are used to. Would it really be best for these young men if they are forced to learn under new assistants for 12-13 and then again in 13-14 all because the University wants to save some money? Bringing in new assistants isn't going to improve attendance, is Eric Hyman providing the best enviroment possible for these student athletes by having them play in front of small crowds? The obvious answer is no, and this is why changing assistants is the easy way out.
Eric Hyman and administration at The University of South Carolina have a decision to make. Are they willing to do what is best for The University of South Carolina Basketball Program? Or are they so cheap financially that they can't spend the money to buyout Horn's contract even though they work for one of America's most wealthy athletic programs? If the right thing is done this year you can bring back the fan support that once existed in the program, but if you wait another year you risk losing fans forever. There is no reason a SEC program should be this bad.