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March 14, 2012

Cloninger: Who's next?



"You're not the one."
-------------- THE DONNAS

I got Darrin Horn. I did.

Through that first year, when South Carolina won 21 games and tied for the SEC East championship, I began to understand Horn's prickly personality. I may not have liked it all the time - sportswriters, just like anybody else, want somebody pleasant to deal with when doing their jobs - but I understood it.

"This guy," I would think after he would throw off a "That's only important to you guys," when it came to discussing free throws or a brusque "I'm not going to talk about scheduling," "is just like me. He loves his job, and he wants to be left alone to do his job, and he comes off very abrasive and rude to people who don't understand that."

I understood it. Really. Most people don't like me, which is perfectly fine - I don't like most people. But most people also don't do what I do for a living, which is serve those very same people with the news they crave, and that is something I absolutely love to do.

Darrin Horn loved to coach basketball. I saw it so many times, in the days he allowed me to watch practice, in the way his players would speak about him, in the pride he took that at his age, he could still hit 60-plus free throws without a miss. I saw him after a great majority of 63 losses in his tenure, how losing ate him up because he had never experienced that, not as a player, assistant or head coach.

I didn't get to see him on Tuesday, when I was part of the group that gathered in the same room that Horn was introduced in four years ago and heard from athletic director Eric Hyman that Horn wouldn't be back for a fifth season. I understand why, because the numbers speak for themselves - although the SEC has tremendously improved as a basketball league, seven SEC wins in two seasons just isn't going to cut it.

I shot Horn a text message, and he was nice enough to respond. We said all the polite things, me thanking him for getting some inside information while he thanked me for being fair, which is all I ever told him I'd be. For what it's worth, he lightened up considerably to me and my brethren during the past two years, but that wasn't nearly enough to save him when it came time to judge wins and losses. He didn't have enough of the former and far too many of the latter to even assume there was going to be hope for another year and another chance to correct that.

There were some of my type - the media boys - who took Horn's arrogance as a personal affront and let that get in their way for crusading for a change, making his desired firing a vendetta. There were others who judged Horn by the numbers, and they are accurate - Horn, like predecessor Dave Odom, did some great things off the court (academics, for example), but he wasn't hired to do any of those things - he was hired to win.

Me, I look at Horn's tenure at USC as a case of "what-if." What if Dominique Archie doesn't go down with a knee injury in November of his second year, and then Mike Holmes doesn't succumb to his general knuckleheaded-ness and get kicked out by Jan. 1? What if USC hadn't started 3-1 in the SEC in 2010-11, an expected down year, thereby raising fan expectations? What if Ramon Galloway hadn't demanded to play point guard over Bruce Ellington after last year and told it would be best for him to transfer, and Murphy Holloway had stuck with his original decision? What if Horn hadn't taken the blitzkrieg approach to several moves that were in effect, public relations - like telling Austin Steed that he couldn't play, but was on scholarship; and not making sure that when he was going to miss his radio show, something that he's contracted to do, that the radio station knew about it?

Let's be clear here - the lack of wins cost Horn his job. But the last part of that above paragraph surely didn't help him retain it. On that radio-show deal, when he very honestly told me his reason for missing - he was with his daughter at her school's Daddy-Daughter dinner - I shook my head when he told me. That is a very, very good reason to miss. I wouldn't do the show if I had the same commitment.

But I'd also make damned sure that there was another way to make up for it, or that it was properly told to the radio station that I would be missing. It all added up, with the player defections and the shell exterior, to quickly turn fans to Horn and what he was trying to do.

I'm not saying that what Horn was trying to do was working. His up-tempo pressing defense was not very strong without a point man to direct it, and when Devan Downey left, it was weak. His half-court offense without one player to direct it - Downey his first two years and Ellington his third - was awful. Throw that in with what fans expect at USC - no matter how unreasonable - and Tuesday's announcement was hardly surprising.

Gamecock fans suffer from the little-brother syndrome, something that has been exacerbated by the tremendous success lately in football, baseball and now, women's basketball. They want to win NOW, no matter the history or previous performance, just do it!

In men's basketball, it's worse. I've covered this program off and on since Eddie Fogler and many fans continue to insist that Frank McGuire is still alive, that his touch is still there. It is not. Not in any way, shape or form. The Gamecocks had a great run in the mid-60s through 1970s under McGuire, but otherwise they have had spots of success - two great years in the late 1990s, a nice season or two in 1989 and 2004 -- but that is not tradition, that is a blind squirrel finding nuts.

Horn tried to turn it around and found out what many other coaches have found out - if you're not named McGuire, forget it. And I personally feel that many fans couldn't stand him anyway because his name wasn't what they want the next coach to be named - his initials aren't G.M., and I'm not referring to George Mikan.

USC may still be a basketball power one day, and it will obviously be under a coach not named Darrin Horn. My question is, even if the new coach comes in and doesn't win in three or four years, does the same discussion start again? And another coach - such as the ol' G.M. candidate that all the fans want - has the same prickly personality and doesn't win, does that bring this boiling up one more time?

I guess we'll all find out. Perhaps the key to getting USC back to McGuire's glory days is one hire away.

And perhaps it's not.

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