Originally published March 27, 2011
SOUTH CAROLINA AND its fan base have been here before. They have loads of experience following a program that struggles to find success with a coach who they say should be shown the door.
Fans howled for Steve Spurrier’s head following a blowout loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl that left USC with a 7-6 record in 2008. The howling grew louder following another lopsided loss to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl that also left USC with a 7-6 record in 2009.
One year later, Spurrier could run for governor — OK, mayor — after an SEC East title. In 12 months he went from being over-the-hill to the greatest football coach in USC history.
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Now USC finds itself with a basketball coach who clearly lost his team by the end of this season and appears on the verge of losing his program. Of course, in typical USC fashion, the fan base wants the coach to head back to the hills of Kentucky.
Here is the truth of the matter: Darrin Horn is not going anywhere anytime soon. USC and its supporters can waste loads of energy trying to run him out of town or channel their support behind him.
Eric Hyman, USC’s athletics director, is a man of great foresight. Perhaps more than anything else, he recognizes it takes time to build a successful program at USC in nearly every sport. It took Ray Tanner six seasons for the baseball program to reach elite status. Not until Spurrier’s sixth season did USC become an SEC East contender in football.
Horn just completed his third season. His first team won a share of the SEC East title and probably was one key injury to Dominique Archie from reaching the NCAA tournament. His second team registered the first victory against a No. 1-ranked team (Kentucky) in program history before losing eight of its final 11 games.
Horn’s youthful team this season never recovered from a midseason loss at home to West cellar team Auburn, lost 11 of its final 13 games and suffered a second consecutive losing season.
All signs pointed to an improved team next season before Horn’s program absorbed a round of body blows this week that left it staggering against the ropes.
Three defections and the decision of promising point guard Bruce Ellington to also play football leaves the body count looking like this: Eight players have left in thee years, and only nine scholarship players remain.
“It’s all part of growing pains,” Horn said Friday in an attempt to put a positive spin on the barrage of bad news. “It’s all part of building a program.”
The knee-jerk reaction is to point the finger — and blame — at Horn. He has admitted mistakes both in evaluating talent in recruiting and in recognizing who fits best into his program and system.
In fairness to Horn, each player’s situation to either leave the program or play another sport should be examined individually. When analyzed that way, some of the doom that looms over the program can be diminished.
First, sophomore Stephen Spinella departed because it became evident he was not an SEC-caliber guard. Sophomore Ramon Galloway could have remained on the team but was not willing to accept being a role player next season. Those kinds of defections happen with just about every program.
Next, Spurrier poached Horn’s program to get Ellington on the football field, where Ellington is likely to be a special-teams player. In allowing Ellington to play football, Horn stood by a promise made during the player’s recruiting. Not having Ellington with the team year-round is a crushing blow to Horn’s program, but hardly his fault.
Finally, there was the announcement that Murphy Holloway does not want to play for USC after sitting out the season following his transfer from Mississippi. Holloway told Horn he was unhappy and wanted to leave.
Only this final loss lands directly at the feet of Horn and his staff. Holloway was expected to be a solid front-court contributor next season. For him to leave speaks to what appears to be much disharmony within the program and the team.
Without Ellington, Holloway and Galloway, the roster has been trimmed of significant talent. But it is not void of talent. Lakeem Jackson, Malik Cooke, Damontre Harris, Brian Richardson, R.J. Slawson and Eric Smith form a good nucleus, and incoming recruits Damien Leonard from Greenville and Anthony Gill from Charlotte will need to contribute immediately.
The ranks are thin. We will find out for sure next season whether Horn can coach. It will not necessarily show in wins and losses, but rather by how well the team melds as a unit and by how it improves from beginning to end of the season.
“We need to see progress, no question,” Horn said. “But, as we talked about at the end of the season, what does that mean? I don’t know the answer to that. Is it that you’ve got to be in the NCAA tournament? I don’t think that’s it. Is it that we’ve got to have more wins? We can fix that with zero progress just by dumbing our schedule down, which doesn’t help our program grow.”
Horn admitted this week that the time will come when he will be judged on his program’s progress. The events of this past week probably shortened that time frame. If Hyman does not see significant progress by the end of next season, he likely will be forced to make a move on Horn.
Until then, it behooves everyone associated with USC to throw their support behind Horn and his program.