DESPITE SOUTH Carolina fans wanting to toast the firing Tuesday of Darrin Horn, this really is no time to celebrate. Horn’s firing after four seasons represents one more failed attempt to resuscitate a program that has been in a slow death for more than three decades.
Horn is the sixth coach to arrive believing he could answer all the questions that have plagued the program since Frank McGuire departed following the 1979-80 season. Like the five before him, Horn came and he was conquered.
Horn brought with him from Western Kentucky youthfulness and energy, promising at his introductory news conference to shut down the South Carolina borders in recruiting, establish USC as a championship contender in the SEC and fill Colonial Life Arena on a regular basis.
He quickly found that the best prospects in the state still grow up dreaming to play in the ACC for North Carolina or Duke. Edisto High senior Brice Johnson is the latest prime national recruit to turn a cold shoulder on USC and Clemson to play at North Carolina.
Horn managed to give USC a taste of championship basketball when the Gamecocks won a share of the SEC East title in his first season and earned a bid to the NIT. His second club also became the first in program history to knock off a No. 1-ranked team, the victory against Kentucky meriting an on-court celebration.
Those were the highlights, and as the losses continued to pile upon the losses over the past three seasons, fans began to stay away from home games in droves. Of 69 games at Colonial Life Arena under Horn, the place was filled four times. It reached the point of embarrassment for the program when Ohio State and Kentucky had more fans at USC’s home court.
Season ticket sales for men’s games went from 9,105 the year before Horn arrived to 8,314 to 8,306 to 7,310 to 5,955 this past season. That is a 35 percent decrease that was certain to plummet further had Horn returned.
Fans clearly had lost hope for the program.
“We didn’t have the positive energy going forward,” Eric Hyman, USC’s athletics director, said Tuesday. “We didn’t have a hope out there for the program. I understand that.”
So, after a good start, where did it all go wrong for Horn and his program?
Perhaps that first 21-win season that featured a 10-6 mark in SEC play masked the problems that came with bringing in someone who had not been a head coach at this level.
Horn made some early mistakes, not the least of which was dealing with the local media in a sometimes condescending manner. He also created an icy relationship with many area boosters, and he failed to jump in bed with the AAU coaches who now direct college basketball recruiting.
By the time Horn realized the errors that probably came with youthful indiscretion, it was too late. Give him full credit for attempting to patch up relationships and be more fan-friendly over the past couple of seasons, but the damage was done.
Then there were the basketball issues. Horn’s first recruiting class turned out to be a bust, mostly because it became obvious those players generally were not SEC caliber. Lakeem Jackson is the lone holdover from that class, and he has proved to be a role player.
Horn recovered well in his next two recruiting classes with the likes of Bruce Ellington, Damontre Harris, Anthony Gill and Damien Leonard, all of whom could develop into solid players.
Unfortunately for Horn, it took him three seasons to recognize that the system of play that worked for him at Western Kentucky did not work at USC. Nearly every SEC team has guards who can handle pressure defense, whether full court, three-quarters court or half-court.
So, Horn abandoned that system this past season and employed a 2-3 matchup zone defense, which proved to be annoying to SEC opposition, even though it was not the system the players were recruited to play. Also, the switch to a zone alignment meant USC seldom created offense out of its defense.
USC struggled mightily to score this past season, ranking 299th among 345 programs with an average a little more than 60 points per game. The result was many games in which USC was not competitive, particularly against the more powerful teams in the SEC — Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Horn might have believed to the end that he could turn the corner, but not many who watched his team play this past season shared the same conviction. The most important of those followers was Hyman.
“Unfortunately, in this business, sometimes you have to take your program in a different direction,” Hyman said, “and this is one of those days.”
Hyman spoke Tuesday at Colonial Life Arena in the Frank McGuire room, which is adorned with photos of the Hall of Fame coach who built USC basketball into a national power in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It seemed fitting because it is the ghost of McGuire that has haunted the program ever since.