DESTIN, Fla. — New South Carolina men’s basketball coach Darrin Horn was familiar with the layout of the Sandestin Hilton from his days in the Sun Belt Conference, which also held its spring meetings at the beachside property on the Florida panhandle.
But there were no A-list football coaches walking through the lobby at those gatherings.
Horn’s welcome-to-the-SEC moment this week was not sitting in with his basketball peers discussing potential rule changes, but passing the likes of Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer in the hall.
“It’s league meetings,” Horn said, who was at Western Kentucky for five seasons. “The one difference here, and this is no knock on the other league, but on the football side you’ve got Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.”
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Though Horn said he did not have time to meet any of the football coaches, he and Dawn Staley, the Gamecocks first-year women’s coach, used the week as a chance to become more familiar with the conference.
South Carolina was the only SEC school to hire two new basketball coaches during the offseason.
“I knew I was in for something special from the amount of people that showed up for the press conference,” said Staley, who spent the past eight seasons at Temple. “But coming down here and kind of getting my feet wet and learning some of the ins-and-outs of the SEC and how it operates, I think it sets in.”
Horn and Staley each arrived with established conference ties.
Seated around the conference table in the women’s basketball sessions were two of Staley’s Olympic coaches: Auburn’s Nell Fortner and LSU’s Van Chancellor, who guided the U.S. team to gold medals in 2000 and 2004, respectively.
Staley said she knew at least eight of the league’s coaches. Georgia’s Andy Landers, the Bulldogs’ coach since 1979, recruited Staley when she was a senior at Dobbins Tech in Philadelphia in 1988.
Landers said he might have landed Staley had their communications lines not gotten crossed. After driving to Carnesville, Ga., to watch Staley’s AAU team play, Landers learned Staley and her coach were in Athens visiting Georgia’s campus.
Staley ended up at Virginia, where she became an All-American point guard and led the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances.
“I think South Carolina can rest assured that they have a competitor,” Landers said. “Not a player, not a coach — a competitor. Her teams are a direct extension of that competitiveness.”
Like Staley, Horn also has a background with many of his new rivals. He coached against John Pelphrey in the Sun Belt when the Arkansas coach was at South Alabama, and faced Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl each of his last two seasons at Western Kentucky.
Pearl and Pelphrey said expect the Gamecocks’ recruiting efforts to pick up under the 35-year-old Horn.
“That’s sort of been the trademark of what he did at Western Kentucky,” Pearl said. “I thought South Alabama and Western Kentucky had the best players in the league. That’s what (Horn’s staff) did in that league. I would imagine they’ll come in here and continue that.”
But Pelphrey said it would be wrong for anyone to write off this season as a rebuilding year for the Gamecocks.
“I think this team he’s going to have is a team that is going to identify with him and play the way some of his teams did at Western Kentucky,” Pelphrey said. “Even though there may be some pieces they don’t have, I think these kids are really going to enjoy playing for him.”
Despite the beauty of Destin’s white beaches and the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Staley and Horn were eager to return to Columbia. Both have to decide whether to use several available scholarships or keep them for next year’s recruiting classes, among other tasks.
Staley has spent much of the time since her May 7 hire tying up loose ends in her native Philadelphia, but will be in Columbia full-time beginning Sunday.
“I need to be in Columbia working,” she said. “Once I get my feet set there, I think I’ll feel (a part of USC) moreso because I’m closer to our players. I’ll be getting to know the university.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.