THE MAN PAYS ATTENTION TO DETAIL. He rattles off telephone numbers of friends and family as if he were staring at his Blackberry. Upon landing in Bowling Green, Ky., this past Wednesday, he made sure every piece of trash was cleared out of the South Carolina jet before his wife and two children departed the plane. Heck, he remembers the course (Interviewing) and who (Regis O’Connor) was teaching it when he first met his future wife at Western Kentucky University.
So, when you decide to rib Darrin Horn about the ceremonial first pitch he threw Wednesda prior to a USC game at Sarge Frye Field — which fell short of catcher Phil Disker’s mitt and skipped into the dirt— be prepared for a detailed account of his baseball prowess.
“But I threw it hard,” Horn says. Then he launches into a story about the time he first threw a pitch 80 mph. Horn was a senior at Tates Creek High School in Lexington, Ky., and had long since given up playing baseball. Yet, he boasted to his math teacher that he could walk outdoors anytime and uncork a fastball that would impress major-league scouts.
The math teacher happened to be the school’s baseball coach, Ron Cole, and he immediately pulled a radar gun from the class closet and marched his young student outside. Horn, of course, topped 80 mph. His math teacher should have known that years earlier, Horn pitched his South Lexington Little League team to a state championship.
For, if there is one and only one thing to know about Darrin Horn, South Carolina’s new men’s basketball coach, it is that when he sets his mind to do something ... consider it done.
“He’s always been someone who, when his eye is on something, he will go out and do what it takes to make it happen,” says Mike Horn, Darrin’s older brother by five years, and an oncologist in Lexington. “He doesn’t sit around and think up something and dream about it and then not take any steps for it. I’ve seen that ever since he was a kid. It always was going to be all out.”
So, it is no surprise that Horn has promised an attacking, hard-working style of basketball for USC fans. As much as he points to the influence of coaches he has either played for, or served under, Horn’s brand of basketball is a reflection of himself.
Horn says he learned the fundamentals of basketball from Nolan Barger, his coach at Tates Creek High. Ralph Willard, Horn’s coach for three seasons at Western Kentucky, taught him the intricacies and strategies of the game. Then, as an assistant at Marquette, Horn learned the entire package of coaching from recruiting to scouting to motivating under Tom Crean, who recently was named coach at Indiana.
As for the determination, competitiveness and confidence Horn brings to his job, well, that was all learned while growing up at 1010 Claiborne Way, a split-level, red brick, three-bedroom, middle-class home in Lexington suburbia.
Ed and Lois Horn settled in Lexington after stops in the Kentucky outposts of Glasgow, where Darrin was born, and Louisville. Ed was in the wholesale grocery business and Lois worked full-time raising four children. Gregg, now a 42-year-old minister in Lexington, came first, followed by the twins, Mike and Missy, who works in preschool in Lexington.
Then came Darrin. Ed, Lois, Gregg, Mike and Missy all still claim no greater Christmas gift to the family than Darrin’s arrival on Christmas Eve 1972. Darrin gained the middle name of McKinley, in honor of his grandfather, William McKinley Horn, who was named after the former U.S. president.
As a youth, Darrin apparently took his middle name to heart and boasted to neighbors that “I could be president of the United States one day ... if I want to.” His mother tells the story, and with it an aside that few doubt that if Darrin wanted to be president, well, they probably would see him in the White House today.
A babysitter of Darrin’s once told his mother he talked too loudly and wondered if maybe he had hearing problems. Mom took Darrin to a doctor, who concluded that the youngster simply wanted to be heard over his two brothers and sister.
“He’s been making his presence known ever since,” Lois Horn says.
Since his sister, Missy, was taking piano lessons, Darrin decided in the sixth grade that maybe he should learn to play as well. When it came time for the Christmas recital, the piano teacher said sister and brother could play the same show.
“Would you be OK with that, and can you handle it?” Lois remembers asking her son about playing with more accomplished pianists.
“I don’t know about the piano playing, but I can handle the social part just fine,” she recalls Darrin saying.
Darrin always seemed to play “up” to the competition. Through a family friendship with Don Lane, the basketball coach at Translyvania University in Lexington, Darrin was allowed to participate in a summer camp for 9- to 12-year-olds beginning at age 6.
Immediately following his first camp, Darrin was seen dribbling a basketball around the neighborhood with his left hand. He was told at camp that he needed to be ambidextrous with a basketball, so he permanently lodged his right hand behind his back.
Around that time, he approached the mother of a neighborhood friend and informed her that, “I’m a really good basketball player.” Years later, about the time Darrin was a budding star at Western Kentucky, that woman told Darrin’s mom the kid knew what he was talking about.
Unlike most sports fans in Lexington, the Horns were not huge followers of Kentucky basketball. More than a liking for the hometown college basketball team, Darrin adopted a love for the game itself.
Early on, the Horns played basketball on a 5-by-10 foot cement court beside their Claiborne Way home. As Darrin grew, he outgrew the court, and his father built a new one.
Ed Horn dug a foundation for the court, lined the 15-by-20 foot cement playing surface with gravel and installed a new basket and floodlights. There was no stopping Darrin then, even when older neighbor Rick McMackin once blocked a shot of his so hard he knocked Darrin off the court, over the gravel and into the mud. McMackin, incidently, now lives in Columbia and attended Horn’s introductory press conference this past week.
Mike Horn says Darrin almost always was the youngest player on the Horn Square Garden court, yet he rarely backed down when basketball games with grown men turned into football scrums.
Darrin says he got his toughness from his mother. When Darrin was about 8, he injured his toe on a staircase at a friend’s house. Upon returning home, Darrin complained of having a foot injury, and his mother instructed him to put his basketball shoe on and head to practice.
It took Darrin’s recreation league coach to inform his player that he could not play. Darrin had a broken toe. Years later, as the coach at Western Kentucky, Darrin told his mother: “Some of my players should have had you for a mother when they grew up, because they need toughness and discipline.”
Some of that discipline Darrin learned on his own. Lois says Darrin is the only one of her children who throughout his growing years neatly prepared his book bag and laid out his clothes the night before each school day. It is no wonder his practice plans and scouting reports for opponents today are meticulous.
Perhaps the best example of how Horn throws everything into whatever he does came during his senior year at Tates Creak High. Horn opted not to play football that 1991 season, so he turned his attention to being the team’s biggest supporter.
The Horns owned a 1973 Ford Granada that Derrin painted the high school’s colors of maroon and white with large “TC” letters on all sides. A group of 10 or so friends gathered at the Horns before each home game, cooked out on the grill, painted their chests, then piled into the Commodores express and drove off to the game. Darrin directed the car around the track to fire up the crowd, its presence every bit as effective as Georgia Tech’s rambling wreck.
“If he was going to be a fan for his team and for all his friends who were on the football team, he was going to do it 100 percent,” says Mike, Darrin’s brother. “Even something like that.”
That same commitment came early to basketball. Nolan Barger, Darrin’s coach, gave the player a key to the high school gym each summer. Mike says Darrin attempted as many as 500 shots each session, often shooting from the same spot until he made 10 in a row. In sweltering heat, Darrin’s shooting sessions often lasted until near midnight, nearly every day of the week.
Barger says Vince Taylor, who later led the ACC in scoring for Duke, was the most gifted athlete he ever coached at Tates Creek. Darrin Horn was the most valuable player he ever coached.
“Darrin was a leader,” Barger says. “He just had a knack, a natural ability to command respect from his peers, and that’s not always the case with kids. He was very bright.”
Horn attained a 3.9 grade-point average in high school. He also helped coach the ninth-grade team during his senior season. During varsity game timeouts, Barger says he sometimes turned the talking over to Horn, who already knew how to bring out the best in his teammates.
Horn’s play took Tates Creek High all the way to the Kentucky state championship game in 1991. Kentucky does not have classifications in basketball, and the postseason tournament is open to all. Prior to the tournament in Horn’s senior season, he was named winner of the state’s Ted Sanford Award, given annually to the player who exemplifies the best qualities of a student-athlete.
Tates Creek lost that title game, 67-63, before a capacity crowd of 23,000 at Rupp Arena. The loss did not set well with Horn. Several months later, Horn and his brother Mike were riding in a car when Darrin suddenly mentioned that he wished he could explain how Tates Creek lost that game.
Even today, the loss sticks in Horn’s craw. He recounted the game’s ending this past week, saying that he was double-teamed on Tates Creek’s final chance to tie. So, Horn passed to the team’s best 3-point shooter, who misfired.
“I promised myself then that I would never pass up that opportunity again, and I was fortunate enough to make a lot of big shots in college because of that experience,” Horn says.
Horn was mostly recruited out of high school by Western Kentucky and Navy, choosing the former because he could not make the commitment to the armed service academy beyond college.
Early in his Western Kentucky playing days, Horn still had a difficult time swallowing losses. His family often traveled the two hours from Lexington to Bowling Green for Western Kentucky home games, only to find that Darrin would not talk following Hilltoppers’ losses.
“I’m not going to ever like losing, Mom,” Lois Horn remembers her son saying following one loss.
“I don’t expect you to like losing, but I would expect you to act better,” she responded. “People are not going to see Jesus in you if you are acting like that.”
Mom won. Horn had been more open to communication following losses since, although thankfully for the family he has found mostly winning ways through his playing and coaching days. He earned all-Sun Belt Conference honors as a 6-foot-5 guard his senior year at Western Kentucky, when the Hilltoppers advanced to the Sweet 16.
Horn also was a GTE third-team academic All-American and earned a degree in liberal arts. He knew he wanted to coach. He says the taste of tournament basketball will never leave his mouth, nor will the sense of family he experienced at both the high school and college levels.
Horn grew to appreciate that a basketball team can be an offshoot family with the coach serving as a surrogate father. He loved Nolan Barger, his high school coach, and Ralph Willard, his college coach for three seasons, almost as much as his own father.
That sense of family carried on during coaching apprenticeships at Western Kentucky, Morehead State and Marquette. Never did it hit home more than following his second season as coach at Western Kentucky.
Danny Rumph, expected to be Western Kentucky’s starting point guard, collapsed during a pickup game in his native Philadelphia and died of cardiomyopathy, a heart condition.
The Horns were instrumental in forming the Danny Rumph Foundation, according to its director, Marcus Owens. Darrin and his wife, Carla, helped establish a scholarship in Rumph’s name at Western Kentucky and contribute annually to the Rumph Foundation.
“When you lose a player like that, it really makes you re-evaluate how important that is and how special those young people are, and how it really is all about the kids,” Horn says. “It was probably the most challenging thing that my family and I have ever had to go through. It was like losing my son.”
Not surprisingly, one of Horn’s players this past season at Western Kentucky, Tyrone Brazelton, described his relationship with his coach in much the same vein.
“He can really coach but understands how to treat people,” Brazelton said. “He treats his players like sons.”
For Horn, it is about having two families. There is his team, of which he demands and expects much. Then there is his immediate family: his wife, 7-year-old daughter Caroline and 5-year-old son Walker.
Horn’s schedule is such that time with his own family must be quality time. He rushes home from practice during the season for dinner. He does not take phone calls or conduct business before tucking his children into bed. Then he retires to his home office for videotape sessions, recruiting and planning.
Fridays are family night at the Horn household. In Bowling Green, that meant dining at Peppers Mexican Grill and Cantina, followed by heavily buttered popcorn while watching a movie at home.
Nothing gets in the way of Horn’s families. He is busy creating the same upbringing for his children —and his team of players —as he experienced. That means learning the values of hard work and dedication as well as establishing a mentality that anything can be accomplished.
It is a philosophy that has led Horn to the top of his profession after five seasons as a head coach. To anyone who knows Horn, they are not surprised.