In the end, he just didn't win enough.
Darrin Horn was fired on Tuesday after four years at South Carolina, following a season where the Gamecocks set a program-low for SEC wins (two) and culminating a free-fall from an SEC East championship in his first season. Horn took the Gamecocks to a 21-10 record in 2008-09 and seemed set to make the NCAA tournament the next year, but a season-ending November injury to Dominique Archie and the dismissal of talented but troubled forward Mike Holmes helped produce a 15-16 overall record. A rebuilding year in 2010-11 showed promise until a rash of player attrition in March, and this year sunk the Gamecocks to a mere 10 wins and just the fourth season of at least 20 losses in program history.
While some USC Board of Trustees members had been publicly supportive of Horn over the past few weeks, other BOT members weren't. The final call was athletic director Eric Hyman's, and after telling USC President Harris Pastides of his intentions on Sunday, he held his standard end-of-year meeting with Horn on Tuesday morning.
A source close to the situation confirmed the firing to GamecockCentral.com, which first reported the news. Hyman made it official on Tuesday afternoon.
"You saw what I saw as far as the basketball program is concerned. I didn't go to the games with blinders on," Hyman said. "The enthusiasm, we didn't have the positive energy going forward.
"You get to a point in time where you have to turn the corner. We do have to put a product out there that is successful."
Horn ends his tenure at USC with a 60-63 record, the first coach in over 70 years to finish four years on the job and have an overall losing record. He won seven of 32 regular-season SEC games over the past two years and never won a postseason game, going 0-4 in the SEC tournament and 0-1 in the 2009 NIT.
Under the terms of his contact, Horn is owed $2.4 million, which covers the final three years on his contract. Hyman confirmed that Horn will receive the full amount, but that the athletic department has a reserve fund of over $12 million that can handle the loss.
"First and foremost, I'd like to thank Eric Hyman, Dr. Pastides and the Board of Trustees for the opportunity I've had as the head men's basketball coach at South Carolina for the past four years," Horn said in a statement. "I appreciate the Gamecock Nation for its support of the program. My family and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Columbia and wish nothing but the best for the Gamecocks."
Hired from Western Kentucky after the Hilltoppers ran to the Sweet 16 in 2008, Horn made an immediate splash with the program's first SEC East championship since Eddie Fogler hung the initial one in 1997, to go along with the team's only SEC regular-season title. But a lack of RPI-strengthening wins and a first-round exit in the SEC tournament relegated the Gamecocks to the NIT, where Stephen Curry and Davidson eliminated them in the first round.
From there, the overall wins diminished to 15 to 14 to 10, with not much hope for next year. Horn was expected to have a young team and struggle in 2010-11, after the departure of all-everything scorer Devan Downey, and dealt with raised expectations after a 3-1 start in the SEC. The season quickly bottomed out with just two wins in the final 12 games, and although the team was expected to struggle with so much youth, fans begin to howl because the year had such a promising start.
The program really dipped following the season, when within a week, three players decided to leave and a fourth partially left. Murphy Holloway, who had transferred from Ole Miss to USC and sat out the season, abruptly left to go back to Ole Miss. Counted on to be a post presence to replace Sam Muldrow, Holloway was suddenly gone. Shooting guard Ramon Galloway also transferred after causing problems in the locker room, but Horn never clarified that and was perceived as running the player off. Stephen Spinella, who produced little in two years, also transferred to Monmouth but is now back in Columbia and managing a tavern in Five Points.
The biggest blow was losing Bruce Ellington, the team's point guard and leading scorer. Declaring Ellington as the player that he wanted to build his program around, Horn watched Ellington decide to play football. He did return to the basketball team, but the team's offense, having to prepare for life without him for the preseason, never got into a groove and finished the year as one of the country's worst units.
Ellington decided on Monday to play basketball full-time, and said after the SEC tournament that a coaching change would not affect his decision. He will return, but the rest of the team may start looking around - there is usually some player attrition during a coaching change, and with only one recruit signed for next year, the Gamecocks may be looking at a short bench in 2012-13.
Hyman met with the team on Tuesday morning, asking for an outline of who the players would like to see in charge. He also advised them to wait until a new coach is hired, before making a final decision about next year.
"I told them, 'If you want to transfer, what I would do is wait until the new coach is hired,'" Hyman said. "If (they) feel this is best for (them), I will obviously support the student-athlete."
Hyman also pledged to meet with USC's assistant coaches and support staff on Thursday, discussing what their options are. Academic advisor Al Daniel and Executive Associate AD Kevin O' Connell will keep their "fingers on the pulse" of the basketball team until a new coach is hired.
That brought up the next question. When will the next coach be hired? And how much money will he make?
The reserve fund should help the Gamecocks be able to offer much more than they offered Horn ($800,000, which was elevated to $1.1 million midway through his second year on the job). Hyman declared he would judge it by the market value - Horn's salary was near the bottom of the SEC's list.
"Obviously, we want someone that can recruit," Hyman said. "We want someone that can develop players. As far as the search is concerned, we'll do it as quickly as possible, however long it takes, and yes, that's double-talk. The pay will be driven by the marketplace. I'm in a little bit better financial standpoint than I was five years ago."
The hot name on several lips to replace Horn is Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, a South Carolina native who assisted at College of Charleston and then led tiny Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years. Marshall is leading the Shockers into the NCAA tournament as a five-seed, and has publicly said, although it was years ago, that he would love to take the USC job someday. Another candidate that could emerge is Jeff Capel, the former Oklahoma coach who was contacted when Horn was hired, but turned down the offer, was later fired and currently serves as an assistant coach at Duke.
Shaka Smart, the Virginia Commonwealth coach who shocked the world last season by taking a team from a play-in game to the Final Four, would be a hot name, but he has been publicly mentioned as the top choice to replace Bruce Weber, who was recently fired at Illinois.
Hyman said he would not use a search firm to help him, as he never has, but will listen to people outside the program who know about basketball affairs. Former USC coach Eddie Fogler helped Hyman hire Horn.
"This is not an exact science, it's an art," Hyman said. "I've had several coaches that, they won the press conference, they didn't win the war. You just don't know."
Hyman will no doubt take his time on finding a new coach, as he has never been an AD to rush into decisions. Tuesday was about reflecting on what Horn had accomplished, and what he failed to do.
Horn significantly strengthened the team's APR and grade-point average, posting the program's second-highest GPA on record during the fall semester. Under predecessor Dave Odom, USC was nearing the danger zone from the NCAA when it comes to the APR. Horn's team sold out Colonial Life Arena for the first time in its history (for a basketball game), then did it twice more. He posted the first win over a No. 1 team in school history when Downey and the Gamecocks stunned Kentucky in 2010.
But the failures and misjudgments triggered his downfall.
Horn's recruiting never made a splash, the coach taking the blame for recruiting misses and never getting the production he thought he would get from his classes. After losing assistant coach Orlando Early to tournament-bound NC State over the offseason, Horn conducted an assistant-coach search - then surprisingly promoted Cypheus Bunton back into the assistant slot, when he had demoted him in order to hire Early.
Attendance has fallen drastically at CLA over the past two years, although the program is not losing money due to it. Horn also had a sour record attached to his record at USC - the Gamecocks played four times in four years at an opponent from the Southern Conference team, and lost every time.
The Gamecocks have not been to the NCAA tournament since 2003 and have only been eight times in their history. They have not won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 (except for the long-defunct consolation games). While the program achieved its greatest highs under coach Frank McGuire in the mid-1960s through the 1970s, it has never gotten back to that point.
Yet Hyman thinks that USC can succeed, with a top-notch facility, brand-new renovated locker rooms and a taste of success among USC's other programs. He pointed out that football, women's basketball and baseball are all experiencing tremendous success, and the only one of the four biggest programs in the national spotlight that wasn't was men's basketball.
Horn wasn't getting it done, and there wasn't much hope moving forward.
At least, not with him in charge.
"You look at the totality of the program," Hyman said. "You factor all of those things in. There was not a specific thing. We're all going to make mistakes. I've got erasers on all my pencils. The key is to learn from them.
"As the year progressed, I see the energy and enthusiasm beginning to dissipate. It's the totality of it. I really reflect back and look back at our others ports, they've had challenges also, they've been successful. (Horn) was apologetic. He understood that you have to create hope. I just didn't get the ammunition."
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