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March 12, 2012

Horn's future should be decided this week



Whispers and rumors abound, but there was no definitive statement about Darrin Horn's job status over a long weekend. Horn, following a 63-57 first-round SEC tournament loss on Thursday that ended the Gamecocks' year at 10-21, said it was business as usual for him going forward, and his staff has been recruiting over the weekend.

But now comes the decision, which is likely to happen early this week. After athletic director Eric Hyman has his standard end-of-season meeting with Horn, what happens then? Does Horn get another year to try and turn the Gamecocks around, with a likely contract extension or at least a re-working? Or does Hyman cut ties with the fourth-year coach and turn to someone new, hoping to inject hope and life into a program that has experienced a severe drop in fan support over the past two years, with not much expected for next year?

Whatever the case, an announcement is not likely to come today. Hyman had meetings with the SEC's other athletic directors in New Orleans during the SEC tournament, which ended on Sunday, and hasn't yet met with Horn. Today would also not be a well-chosen time to put the entire basketball program in the news with a potentially sour bulletin - Dawn Staley's women's program will receive its first NCAA tournament berth since 2002-03 at approximately 7 p.m. today, and Hyman, who hired Staley the same year that he hired Horn, will no doubt want to celebrate the accomplishment.

While several members of USC's Board of Trustees have been publicly supportive of Horn over the past few weeks, and Hyman, also during this season, has publicly pointed out many of the good things that Horn has done at USC, there has been no definite declaration of the coach staying or going. Even with the support of BOT members, the ultimate decision is Hyman's - and he has to choose which path to take.

Horn, speaking after the loss to Alabama in the tournament, said he wasn't thinking about it, although he has previously said several times that he has received much support from the administration. "We're going to keep plugging forward and keep doing what we have been doing to be committed to building our program," he said. "So we think there's some positive things going on from that aspect."

Senior Malik Cooke and sophomore Bruce Ellington each said they believed in Horn's leadership and felt confident that the team would improve. "They're a great group of guys and they will come back next year ready to work hard and definitely win some more games," Cooke said.

Critics point to Horn's record as the main reason he should be let go, and they have quite a substantial argument. The Gamecocks have only won seven SEC games in two years, including a program-worst two this year, and have only won four of their past 24 regular-season SEC games. This year's final record made Horn's overall record at USC 60-63, when no other coach in the past 70-plus years has had an overall losing record after his first four years on the job. Each win total has been less than the year before, and Horn has not won a postseason game in five tries (four SEC tournaments, one NIT game).

Attendance has drastically fallen at Colonial Life Arena, although due to the SEC's lucrative TV deal with all of the conference's schools, USC is not losing money due to lack of ticket sales. While tickets aren't bringing in nearly as much as they were, like when Horn won the SEC East in his first year at the helm, the athletic department is not operating at a loss due to basketball. The loss of attendance revenue may not be a huge factor, anyway - it should be noted that USC's back-to-back national champion baseball team sells out or is close to a sellout for every home game, yet the program will still lose money this year.

Horn has drastically changed the program's academic profile, taking it from the at-risk APR level under predecessor Dave Odom to its second-highest team grade-point average in history. His players graduate, and there has not been a hint of off-the-court turmoil. There has been a large amount of player attrition, though, and while Horn has played the nice guy by not blocking transfers - such as one that could have prevented Murphy Holloway from playing at Ole Miss this year - he's not receiving credit for that. While allowing Holloway to go due to his wishes and letting Ramon Galloway transfer due to attitude issues and problems within the locker room, all outsiders see is the success that those two players are having, at the expense of USC.

The Gamecocks this year have been fighters, banding together through a dismal season and refusing to quit, which certainly wasn't the case just a year ago. The confidence and camaraderie even after the season-ending loss was abundant, and that may be a strong consideration when deciding on Horn's fate. Without a scaling-back of his coaching style, perhaps that wouldn't have happened, and there's no guarantee that another coach could duplicate that.

Horn has a $2.4 million buyout if he is asked to leave, and after paying him $1.1 million for this season, Hyman knows that he will have to up the ante to land another coach. Horn's salary was one of the lowest in the SEC, and to lure a top-flight coach to take over a program that will probably not produce much to celebrate next year, Hyman is looking at a nearly $4 million tag before he makes the first phone call.

Fans have been adamant that they will support a coaching change, but attendance may be strong at first next year and fall off unless the team begins to win. With Cooke gone, Ellington still mulling his football future and only one recruit on the way, chances for even a .500 season are not strong. Fans may not want to see a losing team throughout the entire year, and brush it off as a case of returning to the CLA once the team wins - but there's no guarantee that that will happen immediately, with or without a new coach.

If Hyman decides to keep Horn, he will likely have to re-work his contract to add an extension (and presumably re-do the buyout clause), and that would require BOT approval. The Board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. on Friday, but no issues requiring the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee are currently scheduled.

Regardless, next year's team is expected to struggle, with only one recruit signed and Cooke, the team's leading scorer, departing. Ellington's decision plays a huge role in how much success the team will have next year, and there is no guarantee of him being solely a basketball player next year, with or without Horn.

There are too many questions, and only one answer. Hyman should supply it this week.

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