WHEN IT COMES to hiring men’s basketball coaches at the Division I level, athletics directors do not have to concern themselves much with the game’s Xs and Os. Most coaches these days can coach the game.
It is the other aspects of the profession that have the Eric Hymans of college athletics staying up late at night. Can the coaching candidate get along with associates? Can he manage a staff? Can he spark enthusiasm within the fan base? Can he recruit players? Is he smart enough to essentially act as the CEO of a multi-million dollar company?
Everywhere he turned for answers the past week, Hyman heard one consistent comment about Darrin Horn, South Carolina’s next basketball coach: The guy is smart. Smart beyond his 35 years.
One of those Hyman consulted about Horn was Wright Waters, the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. Horn coached the past five seasons at Western Kentucky, a member of the Sun Belt Conference.
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“He is driven, and he is so smart,” Waters said of Horn on Monday. “He’ll have a plan. He’ll come across sometimes as shy, but don’t misunderstand the shyness. His mind is always thinking. Those wheels are turning.”
It is interesting how certain individuals and teams stick out in your mind over time. Such was the case with Horn and the 1993 Western Kentucky basketball team. If ever a team personified the characteristics of its floor leader, it was the ’93 Western Kentucky club that played in the NCAA tournament, first in Orlando, Fla., then in Charlotte.
Horn was a rangy 6-foot-5 guard whose savvy play caught my eye, as it did most who watched Western Kentucky defeat Memphis and Seton Hall to advance to the Sweet 16. Horn and his Hilltoppers were no match — at least in talent — for Florida State in the next round, but what they lacked in aptitude they made up for in guile. Florida State needed overtime to hold off Western Kentucky.
Two seasons later and Horn was an all-Sun Belt player, living up to his expectations after a high school career in Lexington, Ky., where he was an all-state selection. He also was a third-team GTE Academic All-American his senior year at Western Kentucky, again matching his prowess as a high school student when he carried a 3.9 GPA and was president of the senior class.
“Horn is an extremely bright, hard-working person who has a wonderful disposition off the court but brings a welcome meanness and tenacity when he plays,” wrote the Blue Ribbon college basketball yearbook in 1991.
By the time Horn departed Western Kentucky in 1995 with a language arts degree in hand, the Blue Ribbon yearbook was still gushing about him.
“A four-year standout, this coach on the floor will be sorely missed for his leadership and doggedness,” Blue Ribbon wrote. “He was thought of so highly by (Western Kentucky coach Matt) Kilcullen that he was hired as WKU’s restricted earnings assistant.”
Horn quickly vaulted to assistant coach at Marquette, where he was primarily responsible for recruiting star guard and future NBA standout Dwyane Wade, before returning to Western Kentucky as head coach.
His Western Kentucky teams won 15, 22, 23, 22 and 29 games, advancing two rounds in the NCAA tournament this season. His teams play a full-court game, pressing on defense and using the 3-point shot as a staple to the offense. He hails from the Rick Pitino school of basketball, meaning his teams play as if they are responding to a fire alarm from tip to buzzer. Translation: They are fun to watch.
Horn’s success extends well beyond the court. Every player who entered his Western Kentucky program graduated on schedule. His players speak of Horn with great reverence.
“Coach Horn will be a star,” senior guard Tyrone Brazelton recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He will be going to Final Fours. He can really coach, but he understands how to treat people. He treats his players like his sons.”
Even Waters, the Sun Belt commissioner, has turned to Horn for leadership. Waters recalled a meeting several years ago with league coaches. Waters, the league commissioner since 1998, was adamant that the league needed to get more than one team in the NCAA tournament and win games once they got there.
“You’ve got to have some priorities and you’ve got to play better schedules and you’ve got to win non-conference games,” Waters recalls telling the coaches. “You’ve got to sell tickets, all the things that make the program.”
Horn immediately expressed his support of Waters and vocally urged his fellow coaches to buy into the concept. Before you knew it, Horn’s Western Kentucky teams had won twice at Georgia, at UAB and had lost close road games against Bradley, Arizona and Virginia.
This season, for the first time since Horn was playing for Western Kentucky in 1993, the Sun Belt placed two teams in the NCAA tournament and won two games. Not coincidentally, it was Horn’s Western Kentucky club that defeated Drake and San Diego before losing to UCLA.
“He’s very, very bright,” Waters said. “He catches on fast, thinks through things. We will miss him. We will miss him tremendously.”
Western Kentucky’s and the Sun Belt’s loss appears to be USC’s gain, if smarts have anything to do with it.