Why Horn might go - and why he's likely to stay

March 9, 2012 

University of South Carolina head basketball coach Darrin Horn answers questions from the press after the Gamecocks victory over Alabama at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

C. ALUKA BERRY — caberry@thestate.com

THE STATISTICS SUGGEST Darrin Horn has coached his last game at South Carolina, yet there’s a good chance university leadership will support his return for a fifth season.

He has posted three straight losing seasons — a first at USC since the Clinton administration.

In his four years in Columbia, Horn has yet to go to the NCAA tournament, win an SEC tournament game or beat a Southern Conference school on the road. He’s the first coach with a losing record after his first four seasons at USC in 73 years.

This year, Horn finished the school’s worst-ever league record (2-14) and tied the team record for the most losses in a season (10-21). The Gamecocks’ 61.4 points per game were the team’s second-lowest in the SEC era and ranks 290th in the nation.

And announced attendance is down 25 percent since Horn won a share of the SEC East crown in his first season.

Despite recent reports about Horn’s future, four board members said after Thursday’s first-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama that no decisions have been made.

Several USC trustees and school president Harris Pastides have liked how Horn has taken the program out of the academic danger zone with the NCAA. Horn also wins their praise for players staying out of trouble and working hard — even in a losing cause. The team also has been one of the nation’s youngest two seasons running.

“I respect the wholesome aroma he has around him,” said Mark Buyck Jr., a Florence attorney and trustee who believes Horn deserves more time. “If the program is on sound footing, winning will come.”

Not all of USC’s board members think Horn should stay, but the final decision belongs to athletics director Eric Hyman, who is expected to review the program with Horn early next week.

If Hyman retains the coach he hired in 2008, Horn might get a contract extension because his deal lasts three more seasons. Coaches like to be able to assure recruits that they’ll be around all four years.

Any contract changes must win approval from the board, who will want to question Hyman about his decision. The board meets next Friday.

At the beginning of SEC play, Hyman touted signs of progress in the program, saying the fans knew the team was getting better. As the losses mounted, he stressed no decisions would be made until the season ends.

Hyman said programs have to show signs of hope. Most of the offensively challenged roster is returning, but leading scorer Malik Cooke is leaving and top all-around performer Bruce Ellington could miss games again to play football. The team has one recruit thus far, a forward who is not among the top-ranked prospects.

Hyman’s decision would have been more clear with a couple more wins or any sort of run in the SEC tournament, but the Gamecocks won one of their final 12 games this year.

The price tag to buy out Horn — $2.4 million — is not cheap. That is about the same as the team’s profit last season.

The athletics department, however, has built a $12 million rainy-day fund that’s capable of paying the coach to leave with three years remaining on his contract.

Also, with the SEC television and tournament distributions, the program makes money before the first ticket is sold — meaning the department can withstand the $400,000 drop in ticket sales in the two seasons after Horn’s only winning campaign in 2008-09. That amount will grow with another attendance dip this season.

Hyman, who runs the department like the $84 million business it is, is not one to make rash judgments.

He hears the anger of fans, but he will calculate the cost of firing Horn with the price of bringing in a new coach. And he will do this not only based in dollars but also in what a change means to the players, academics, recruiting and public goodwill. (And some of that goodwill includes Horn beating Clemson two years in a row.)

Horn might receive more time because USC basketball has never been a decade-in, decade-out success. Hyman has said over the past year that the development needed to create a consistent winner requires patience. Hyman used to bring up Mike Krzyzewski, who needed to jump start Duke, but that seems to have stopped. Krzyzewski earned a NCAA bid in his fourth season in Durham.

If he returns, Horn likely will have one season to show improvement. Five years appears to be the comfort spot for USC leadership to allow Horn every chance of success without seeming like the school is jettisoning the coach too soon.

What does improvement look like? Expecting this team to reach the NCAAs next year is a stretch.

But the Gamecocks certainly need a record of .500 or above and must show better form in league play. Horn’s 13 SEC wins in the past three seasons is the school’s worst stretch since the 12 victories that South Carolina collected in its first three years in the league.

Also Horn will need to have top-shelf recruits, who suggest a bright future. That will be a challenge when many publications and websites already have Horn on their coaching hot-seat lists and will surely save him a spot next season.

History could be on Horn’s side.

The two other coaches who posted losing records in their first four seasons at USC got another chance — though both Ted Petoskey and A.W. Norman ran teams in 1930s. The last coach with a 21-loss season for the Gamecocks — Eddie Fogler in 1998-99 — lasted two more years.

Yet after the way this season finished, Horn’s ending could be different.

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