As I wrote previously, some of us go from mid-majors to above the Red Line. Some, like Kyle, have gone from above the Red Line to below it. And of course there are people who work in Our Game who see moving above the Red Line as a step up in their careers, most notably coaches.
Darrin Horn played for Western Kentucky, leading some of the Hilltoppers' most successful teams in the early 1990s. As soon as he graduated from WKU, Horn began his coaching career as an assistant coach, first at WKU before moving on to Marquette. By the age of 30, Horn returned home as the new head coach of the Hilltoppers. Horn always had winning teams, but Western Kentucky fans wondered when he would lead them to the postseason success Horn had as a player.
Finally in 2008, Horn had the right combination of athletes to do the job. Let by future NBA player Courtney Lee, the Hilltoppers tied for the Sun Belt regular season title and won the tournament, earning a 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A miracle shot by Ty Rogers led the Hilltoppers to an upset win in the first round of MVC champ Drake, and a win over another mid-major in San Diego got Western Kentucky back to the Sweet 16. At the age of 35, Darrin Horn was seen as the next up and coming coach in college basketball.
So Horn, like too many of our beloved mid-major coaches, decided to move across the Red Line and took the job at South Carolina that had opened with the resignation of Dave Odom. South Carolina was a program that had not won a NCAA Tournament game in over 30 years, and where most of the fanbase cared most about football. To make matters worse for a Gamecock basketball coach, a highly successful baseball program put basketball third in South Carolina athletics. As has been written on this site before, it is very hard to carve out a basketball niche at a football school. Todd Lickliter went from success at Butler to being fired at Iowa after three years. Dan Monson left Gonzaga after an Elite Eight appearance, but struggled at Minnesota as Mark Few built the Zags into a program with exemption status. Brad Stevens has succeeded Lickliter by making Butler into what was named in the countdown on the Mid-Majority Twitter feed a year ago as the top mid-major program. It is quite possible to be a successful coach without feeling the need to move up.
Horn got off to a good start at South Carolina. The previous coach, Dave Odom, had previously coached Tim Duncan at Wake Forest and his system relied on the big man he was never able to recruit at South Carolina. But Horn moved to a system of high-intensity that created transition baskets off a pressing defense. With the explosive 5-9 Devan Downey and athletic forward Dominique Archie, the Gamecocks won 21 games and tied for first in the SEC East. USC however would be denied a NCAA Tournament appearance due to playing too many guarantee games early in the season. The USC athletic department felt that with Downey and Archie returning, the 09-10 season would be even more successful and would give the Gamecocks the basketball niche that had been absent. Horn received a pay raise and a contract extension designed to scare off any of the major powers of college basketball from poaching him.
But on one night in Charleston, Horn's fortunes would change. In the Charleston Classic final, Archie would land awkwardly following a dunk and tear his Achilles' tendon, ending his season. Shortly afterwards, another starter in Mike Holmes was booted from the team for disciplinary issues. With not much time to recruit when he started, all Horn had left was Downey. Downey would will his way to a few big victories, most notably a win over #1 Kentucky, but the Gamecocks would not even make the NIT finishing with a 15-16 record. Downey would graduate, and Horn was left with mostly role players and freshmen who would struggle to a 14-16 record in 2010-11. To make matters worse, some of Horn's recruits would leave him. Ramon Galloway transferred below the Red Line to La Salle, and bench player Stephen Spinella would leave to. Murphy Holloway would change his mind about transferring after sitting out a year and went back to Ole Miss. But the big blow to any chances that USC had at succeeding early in the season was when leading scorer Bruce Ellington decided to join the football team, and leave basketball behind until the winter. You know you are at a football school when the player supposed to lead your team decides he would rather be a role player on the football team.
After beating Western Carolina by 25 points to start the season, Horn's Gamecocks were Red Lined twice, losing by 5 at Elon and by 1 at home against Tennessee State. Many USC fans had become restless with Horn after loving him early on. And now the Gamecocks tonight would face Mississippi Valley State of the SWAC, hoping to avoid another Red Line Upset.
The Delta Devils, like many teams from the SWAC, have far fewer resources than any other conference in Division I, much less the SEC. MVSU comes from a rural Mississippi town called Itta Bena, in a region stricken by isolation and poverty. The guarantee games serve as bailouts for the schools financially, and as a way to travel the country playing basketball. This was the 4th guarantee game for the Delta Devils, and their best opportunity to win. The players clearly knew this, and were poised to strike another upset that elevate their program's status and that of the SWAC.
Early on, the game was quite sluggish. Few in the crowd were excited about this matchup. Most season ticket holders did not show, and only a few students on the first evening of Thanksgiving Break made their way to the Colonial Life Arena. Nearly all who did sat and talked with their friends, not really caring about making this a great college basketball atmosphere. Both teams struggled on offense, with the Gamecocks pulling out to a double digit lead midway through the half. But the Delta Devils closed the gap to four points by halftime, and both teams seemed to feel another Red Line Upset coming.
MVSU would begin to take over in the second half, taking an 11 point lead with 6 minutes to play. Another Red Line Upset seemed inevitable. But Horn had one last trick in his bad, one that had worked when he had a deeper and more athletic team: the press. All of the sudden, MVSU players began to make careless turnovers and it became a close game again with 3 minutes left. Tennessee State also faced a mounting comeback, but did not fold down the stretch. But the Delta Devils were not at the same level as the Tigers, and USC took the lead with less than 2 minutes to play. Despite their best effort in the final minute, South Carolina would wind up a with a 61-57 win avoid the RLU this time. After picking up his 5th foul in the closing seconds, Terrence Joyner who led the game with 22 points showed his frustration as he went back to the bench. While this was a better result than most SWAC teams have against major competition, Mississippi Valley State felt that they should have gotten the RLU.
Darrin Horn is making far more money than Western Kentucky could ever afford. And with his current contract, he may also have job security, something that dooms a lot of coaches who cross the Red Line. But what Horn does not have is a stable situation with winning teams every year. Maybe Horn will turn things around, and his new recruits could pan out over time. Or they might not, and five years from now he could be coaching a mid-major again. But regardless, mid-major coaches should know that things are not always greener on the other side, and building on the success you have is a much safer career move than trying to create success where basketball is not king.
at SOUTH CAROLINA 61, MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 57 11/22/2011
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE 0-4 (0-0) -- T. Joyner 8-13 2-4 22; K. Burwell 2-7 0-0 5; F. Jones 3-7 4-4 11; P. Crosy 2-7 1-1 5; C. Cox 3-7 0-0 7; A. Studivant 1-3 1-4 3; B. Arrington 1-5 2-3 4; L. Pajkovic 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-49 10-16 57. SOUTH CAROLINA 2-2 (0-0) -- M. Cooke 4-8 10-12 18; D. Leonard 5-12 2-2 16; E. Smith 3-6 0-1 8; A. Gill 3-6 2-3 8; D. Harris 1-3 2-2 4; L. Jackson 0-2 1-3 1; R. Slawson 2-6 0-2 4; C. Geathers 0-0 0-0 0; B. Richardson 1-5 0-0 2. Totals 19-48 17-25 61.
Three-point goals: MVSU 7-17 (K. Burwell 1-4; C. Cox 1-2; F. Jones 1-2; P. Crosby 0-1; T. Joyner 4-5; B. Arrington 0-3), SC 6-18 (M. Cooke 0-3; B. Richardson 0-3; E. Smith 2-3; D. Leonard 4-9); Rebounds: MVSU 27 (C. Cox 8), SC 32 (A. Gill 8); Assists: MVSU 12 (F. Jones 6), SC 9 (M. Cooke 3); Total Fouls -- MVSU 24, SC 17; Fouled Out: MVSU-F. Jones; SC-None.