SOUTH CAROLINA basketball fans should be thankful they have an athletics director willing to take a risk. That is what Eric Hyman did Tuesday when he introduced Darrin Horn as the program’s new coach. Hyman gambled that the risk will bring great reward.
Hiring the 35-year-old Horn was a risk in the same vein that Mike Krzyzewski was a risk at Duke 28 years ago and Dean Smith was a risk at North Carolina nearly 50 years ago. Just as Horn is a relative unknown from Western Kentucky, no one saw a future Hall of Famer in the 33-year-old Krzyzewski after five seasons at Army. Certainly no one saw the 30-year-old Smith as one of the game’s great innovators after a six-year apprenticeship as an assistant.
What the athletics director in each of those instances saw was a coach who fit the needs of the program and the school. Duke needed a coach who could accentuate academics as a means to better recruit players. North Carolina needed a coach who could steer the program through the remnants of a scandal and NCAA probation.
What USC did not need was a safe choice. It did not need to hire a “name” coach so the athletics director could puff his chest and boast of the program’s national prominence. Instead of seeking what he wanted in a coach, Hyman went to the team, to former players and to the USC board of trustees to find what they wanted in a coach.
Hyman found a common thread from all parties: They wanted a coach who was demanding, disciplined, dynamic, energetic, headstrong for academics, and one who taught an exciting brand of basketball.
Hyman then matched the man with those wants and needs. In Horn he found it all. He also found the kind of purpose and confidence that Duke and North Carolina officials found in Krzyzewski and Smith.
This is not to say Horn is the next Krzyzewski or the next Smith. The odds of that happening are long indeed. But the similarities in how they approach the job are remarkable. All three have — or had, in Smith’s case — a system they believe in, are willing to outwork the field, and believe their role as a coach extends far beyond the court.
Krzyzewski introduced combative, attacking man-to-man defense to the ACC. Smith brought run-and-jump defense and the shuffle offense to college basketball. Horn brings full-court pressure defense and freelance offense to USC — although neither is new to the SEC.
Paul Sandiford, a former assistant coach under Horn at Western Kentucky, says USC will be the best-conditioned team in the SEC. Sandiford said Horn will focus on how USC plays and make opponents adjust to that style, just as Krzyzewski does at Duke and Smith did at UNC.
Like Krzyzewski and Smith, Horn is confident no one will outwork him and his team. Horn was known at Western Kentucky to return at 3 a.m. from a road game, get in his car and be off on a recruiting trip without sleep, according to Sandiford. Horn’s work week routinely lasts 70 hours and sometimes extends beyond 80.
“Darrin is tough and demanding and disciplined,” Sandiford said, “and he has a hard time understanding when people aren’t as disciplined and dedicated.”
So disciplined is Horn, he can stretch and stretch and stretch a sentence without so much as taking a breath. The man does not speak in commas. Take this one from Tuesday’s news conference:
“The only way I know how to do it is to outwork people and to work extremely hard and to do it with a high level of energy and to make sure we’re getting better and to make sure that these guys are growing every single day as people first, as students second and as players third.”
That is the same order of priorities set by Krzyzewski and Smith when they were hired. Both of their programs became models for how to operate within the academic community while attaining success in athletics.
Horn involves himself in the academic life of his players, to the same extent he does in teaching them basketball. He assigns four players to each assistant and requires an academic meeting with each player three times a week. A progress report on every player is submitted to Horn every Friday.
“I had never seen a head coach who was so concerned for the kids and them getting an education,” said Sandiford, who was a head women’s coach for 31 years before serving as an assistant under Horn. “He would know if one of the kids flunked an English test or gotten a bad grade on a paper.”
Like Krzyzewski and Smith, Horn takes great pride in preparing his team. Seldom, if ever, is there a game situation their teams have not practiced.
Two weeks ago, few who know Horn were surprised that Ty Rogers tossed in a 35-footer at the buzzer in Western Kentucky’s NCAA tournament first-round win against Drake. Matt Kilcullen, Horn’s coach at Western Kentucky during the 1995 season, saw the game-winner coming.
Kilcullen recalled a Western Kentucky game early in the 1995 season against Eastern Kentucky. The teams were tied at 77 with 8 seconds remaining when Kilcullen suggested Western Kentucky shun the two-pointer and put the game away with a 3-point basket.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Kilcullen recalled Horn saying with great confidence. Western Kentucky ran “motion reverse” and Horn came off a screen and sank the game-winning 3-pointer.
“That’s the kind of belief he had in himself as a player, that there wasn’t anything he couldn’t accomplish,” Kilcullen said. “That’s carried over to his coaching.”
That sounds eerily similar to a couple of guys named Krzyzewski and Smith.