COLUMBIA — South Carolina's football team won 11 games in 2011, its highest win total ever. The Gamecocks' baseball team is chasing its third consecutive national championship. And the South Carolina women's basketball squad likely will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002-03.
Those are three of the four most prominent sports at nearly every major American college. In the fourth sport, men's basketball, South Carolina is nearing the end of one of its worst seasons ever.
The Gamecocks finished the regular season 10-20, 2-14 in the SEC. They joined the SEC in 1991-92 and had never finished worse than 3-13. The last time they won just two conference games was 1985-86, when they went 2-10 in the Metro Conference.
This season was South Carolina's fourth in program history with 20 losses. Because the Gamecocks play in the SEC tournament, starting Thursday afternoon against Alabama in New Orleans, they almost certainly will tie a school record with 21 losses, set in 1937-38 and equaled in 1998-99.
South Carolina men's basketball has a limited history of success. But this season, the Gamecocks struggled to a degree uncommon even for them. They will finish with a losing overall record for the third straight season, which hasn't happened since four straight losing seasons from 1991-92 to 1994-95.
With attendance and season ticket sales sagging, and the team's losses magnified by the success of three other highly visible South Carolina sports, athletics director Eric Hyman must decide if he wants to keep or fire fourth-year coach Darrin Horn, who makes about $1.1 million per year.
Firing him would come at a steep price for an athletics department that has already committed $154 million to facilities upgrades since Hyman arrived in 2005.
Horn has three years remaining on his contract after this season. If South Carolina fires him for lack of success, it owes him $800,000 for each year left on his contract. Might the department's financial commitment to facilities preclude paying a coach $2.4 million to go away, on top of what South Carolina would have to pay a new coach?
"You take everything into consideration," Hyman said.
Horn's time in Columbia started with promise. In his first season, 2008-09, he led South Carolina to a 21-10 record (10-6 SEC). He started the next year 6-2.
Then, on Dec. 14, 2009, South Carolina's Board of Trustees approved a two-year contract extension for Horn, through the end of the 2014-15 season. The board increased his salary by $300,000 -- to $1.1 million. The board also increased his buyout to $800,000 (from $250,000) for each year left on his deal.
Before Horn received the extension, his record at South Carolina was 27-12. Since then, it is 33-50.
Hyman declined to offer an in-season assessment of Horn's program, in keeping with his policy. Hyman will meet with Horn after the season, as he does with all of his head coaches, and discuss the state of the program.
"In my background, there have been situations that sometimes, if you were to prematurely jump at a particular time, or you make a decision, it's too premature until you finish the entire season," Hyman said of his desire to not assess a team during the season.
Horn indicated he received supportive feedback recently from Hyman, but declined to elaborate.
"Our focus is the SEC tournament," he said.
Fans have already voiced their disapproval with their absence. In Horn's first year, South Carolina drew an average paid home crowd of 11,776. South Carolina drew 11,994 the next year when it finished 15-16, 6-10 in the SEC. Last season, the Gamecocks went 14-16 and 5-11, and attendance dropped to 10,427.
This season, the average paid attendance for a home game was 8,868. Actual attendance was often about half that. The paid attendance for the home finale against Mississippi State was 7,224, the lowest in 80 SEC games that have been held at Colonial Life Arena since the building opened for the 2002-03 season.
Season ticket sales are a reliable measure of fans' financial commitment to a program. The year before Horn arrived, South Carolina sold or distributed 9,105 season tickets (some university employees get the tickets for free). In Horn's first two seasons, those numbers were 8,314 and 8,360. Last season: 7,310. This season, USC sold or distributed just 5,955 season tickets.
"In any program, the competitive success is going to impact that," Hyman said. "The key is you create hope."
To that end, South Carolina's current roster is extraordinarily young, with just one senior and one junior. Horn understood there would be growing pains this season, and he hopes to develop his returning players into a foundation for South Carolina's longer-term success.
"From Day 1, my understanding was: We were hired to build a program and not just to go get some guys that can win some games," he said.
South Carolina has won in the past, but not often. The Gamecocks have played in the NCAA tournament eight times, reaching the second round twice but never advancing past that. They last played in the NCAA tournament in 2004 and last won a game in 1973.
This season was South Carolina's 21st in the SEC. It finished with a losing conference record for the 16th time. The Gamecocks have just three winning SEC seasons, including Horn's first year.
Hyman said he considers several factors when assessing a coach's success with building a program, including academic success of the players. The men's basketball team's fall 2011 grade-point average, 2.932, was its second-highest on record.
"Winning and losing is a huge part of this," Hyman said.
"But in the same light, there are other areas you have to evaluate."
Hyman understands that simultaneous success in the four top sports -- football, baseball and both basketballs -- is rare in collegiate sports, "but that doesn't keep us from wanting to do it," he said.
As Hyman prepared to consider the future of his men's basketball program in the coming weeks, he dismissed the notion that he would give Horn preferential treatment because he hired the coach.
"I do try to factor (a lot) into consideration when you make a decision," he said. "There are some times you're at the point of no return and you've got to look at going in a different direction."