College Sports

Horn not flashy pick, but a solid choice

COLUMBIA -- No, this isn't the sexiest hire South Carolina could have made.

But it's far from the barrel's bottom.

Darrin Horn took over the reins of Gamecock basketball on April 1, and it wasn't an April Fools' Day joke. USC gets a young, intense coach who's spent the past five years building Western Kentucky, not exactly the most historical program in the Bluegrass, into a perennial 20-game winner.

Unless LSU hires somebody completely off the radar, Horn will enter the 2008-09 season as the SEC's youngest coach, a 35-year-old rookie. He assumedly will be able to relate very well to his players, most of them only a teenager's difference from himself, and perhaps be able to demonstrate exactly how he wants his systems run by getting on the floor with them, whistle traded for practice jersey and basketball.

"I'm unbelievably excited to be your head coach," Horn said, as the applause died down and he removed his brand-new cap. "I know basketball tradition when I see it, and you all have ... WE have basketball tradition."

From talking with several passionate Gamecock supporters, I got a mix of opinions. The ones in garnet-tinted glasses naturally endorsed the hire, enthusiastically welcoming Horn to Columbia and guaranteeing great things in the future. The ones on the opposite extreme were mostly put off by the name -- of all the names being discussed since the day Dave Odom announced his retirement, Horn's was rarely brought up, even as a safety fallback.

Most are in the middle. Like me, they see Horn's success with the Hilltoppers and his firebrand approach to the game -- popular pictures in print and online show Horn's Claymation faces on the sideline.

"This is the intelligence, these are the feedback we constantly got back about Darrin Horn," said athletics director Eric Hyman, after a long read of compliments from other opinion-makers. "That's the kind of coach you're going to get here at the University of South Carolina."

Horn does not bring the instant name recognition of a Jeff Capel. He does not bring the Palmetto State ties of a Gregg Marshall. He does not bring the impressive pedigree of an Anthony Grant.

He brings -- from hours of staying up watching video of Western Kentucky over the past week -- relentless trapping defense, dizzying speed, emphasis on transition and the 3-pointer, all of which suits the returning group of Gamecocks particularly well.

"We're not the biggest, but we're going to run up and down," said point guard Devan Downey, the team's linchpin who has two years of eligibility left. "He was straightforward, he was honest. He told us it was going to be hard, so get ready."

This is where the picture muddies. With the talent USC returns, it's my opinion that any coach who took the job would have a substantial improvement next year. With only one player lost and one of the most dynamic guards in the nation returning, any coach was going to walk into a loaded cupboard.

Improving on a 14-18 (5-11 SEC) season shouldn't be too tough with this year's group of newbies holding a year under their belt. I'll go ahead and say USC will be in a postseason tournament next year.

Which one is the question, which leads to another. Horn will ride a wave of new-blood passiveness and returning talent for the next couple of years, but after that, what happens?

Does the USC administration and its foaming-at-the-mouth fan base demand an NCAA tournament berth in two or three years? Do they expect it every year after that? Do they assume conference titles, All-American recruits and constant stays in the Top 25 to be a birthright?

None of it will be easy. Horn enters a division where fourth place may be the best spot available for a long, long time. He takes over a program that has had three McDonald's All-American recruits in its history (and two of those were from Columbia). He walks into a place where expectations and hopes are sometimes completely unreasonable, judging from past results and the simple geography, located an eternity away from the center of the SEC and only a stone's throw from the heart of ACC basketball.

As of April 1, Horn's future is paved with gold, the same as Odom's, Eddie Fogler's, George Felton's, Bill Foster's. All of those turned into bronze, then lead, then cobblestones, most of them missing, as the road stretched on.

Horn has the chance to erase all of that. He's also got the chance to be JAG -- Just Another Guy -- who had the bad sense to be born after the late, great Frank McGuire.

"It's important not to look at the name alone," said Rock Hill's Samuel R. Foster II, a member of USC's Board of Trustees. "We have hired a great coach."

He's at least got one positive already in his corner. As of yesterday, Horn has been USC's coach for four days.

That's one more than Bobby Cremins.