Players Tune in to Horn's Message

"Intense" and "focused" are two words University of South Carolina fans might use to describe new Head Basketball Coach Darrin Horn after his first meeting with the USC family. The question for the future might be, "What did you hear?"

Vladmir Horowitz was one of the world's most acclaimed classical Pianist's of the 20th century. It is reported that he played a concert in Chicago and the musical review was terse and to the point. "The notes were there," read the story in the next day's newspaper, "but the music wasn't." Horowitz was made aware of the review and retired from public concerts for more than a decade, some saying it was a collapse due to an intense performing schedule.

Despite brief flashes of brilliance and some outstanding individual players and performances, something has been missing from Carolina's basketball teams since Eddie Fogler's 1997-98 squad made the SEC Finals and the NCAA Tournament. Longtime Gamecock fans would say something has been missing since the mid-1970's success under Frank McGuire.

The hiring news conference of 35 year old Horn, who left his alma mater of Western Kentucky, sounded and felt different from previous introductions of new Gamecock Basketball coaches over the years. They were more established than Horn, from Bill Foster - who left Duke in 1982 - to Dave Odom - who came from Wake Forest in 2001. Gamecock fans might be tempted to close their eyes and review in their minds what they saw and heard from Horn's first appearance in Columbia. Was it the same old song, or was it something different?

Graduating players; good, great, or outstanding facilities; hard work; the need for a strong fan base - all are mentioned by incoming coaches. Was there something different about the way Horn said it?

"I want to be here," said Horn at least three times. "I think this is a great job." Later he said, "I am excited to be here. I want to be here. I think this is a phenomenal job. I think it's a great place to be."

Academics were stressed, and Horn has great success there. Horn has graduated all of his players since arriving at Western Kentucky. Athletic Director Eric Hyman pointed out that if all the teams in the NCAA basketball tournaments of the last six years were ranked on graduation rates, Horn's Western Kentucky team would rank first.

Horn stressed that the athletic program's place was within the University framework. The former Academic All American and Hyman had a meeting of the minds on USC's goals right away: compete nationally, compete for championships and do it "the right way."

"The right way means that you're gonna have a team that represents you well, on the court and off the court, and performs academically," said Horn.

Horn recognized his team during his talk and asked for applause. Rising junior and vocal team leader Devon Downey sat with all his teammates and heard Horn say he will graduate his players. "We should be student athletes – student athletes," stressed Downey. "As a player you just want a coach who's gonna be honest."

Horn stresses an up tempo, fast-paced game, with not just 94 feet of an aggressive offense, but 94 feet of an aggressive defense also. "He was straightforward and he was honest," said the Gamecock point guard of their short meeting with the coach before the news conference. "He told us it was going to be hard, so get ready."

Horn said he is looking forward to the Academic facility that is expected to open in 2009, to show recruits that they will have "the best of the best to reach your primary goal here at South Carolina, and that is to leave here with a degree."

Rising senior Brandon Conrad recalled the oft-mentioned rule that a Coach's most important meetings with his players are the first and last meeting he has with them. The transfer from the Naval Academy thought Horn gave a great first impression. "Coach Horn just got our attention right away, and got us excited about starting work (Tuesday). He left a great impression on all of us." Conrad is a member of the National Honor Society, and also took note of Horn's status as an Academic All American as a player at Western Kentucky, with a great graduation record at WKU as a coach. Conrad called stressing academics "one of [Horn's] most important characteristics as a coach."

Horn stressed that South Carolina has lots of high school basketball talent which fits into his recruiting philosophy of "starting on the inside and work our way out." Horn said, "We are gonna put up a fence around the state of South Carolina, and the best players in the state of South Carolina are gonna be recruited to play at the University of South Carolina." Was it the way he emphasized "of" South Carolina that caught your attention? Or was it his refusal to name Clemson when tested by a reporter's question, "Who will be your biggest rival?"

"Should I even say it out loud? I think they wear orange," replied the coach. "I think to mention their name would be to justify their existence, wouldn't it." Coach Horn's next words brought one of several "Here, here" reactions from University President Andrew Sorenson: "We're the University of South Carolina – border to border."

Horn stressed the positives at USC, where the apparent "top names" on the list of potential candidates apparently were not interested in coming to Carolina. Horn pointed out that there already is basketball tradition at USC. "Y'all have…," then Horn corrected himself, "We have basketball tradition here. There's no question."

Horn used humor to deflect a "what if": What if his (WKU) team had not hit a last second shot to beat Drake in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and therefore never would have made the Sweet 16, and played a close game against UCLA? "I know we did, and I'm here is all that matters." Horn added, "I'm not even sure if I was (wife) Carla's first choice or how she decided on me. I fooled her like I have everybody else, it doesn't matter."

Horn's goal is to grow the "passionate fan base" so that each game is sold out, but pointed to the USC students, with word and gesture, as the most important fans to "drive the energy in that building."

Horn called the Colonial Center "a first class facility," and the SEC "one of the best leagues in the country."

In his introduction, Hyman read a list of attributes that current and former players and USC athletic Department officials wanted in a coach – not what he, as A.D. was looking for personally. Energetic, young and "wants to be here" were mentioned by all groups. Horn showed all those traits effortlessly.

"I am convinced that this is a special place. I am honored as a coach to be alongside coaches like Steve Spurrier and Ray Tanner," said Horn.

Guard Brandis Raley- Ross and the rest of the team met with Horn just minutes before the media and USC supporters on Tuesday. "My first impression is that he's a hard worker. He wants it as much as we do. He came in and said we're going to get right at it, we're gonna come in and he wants us to be successful so we're gonna work," said the rising junior from Charlotte. "My first impression is, ‘I'm on board.' He wants to win, I want to win." Raley-Ross said the 35 year old can relate to the players a little better than perhaps an older coach, and sprinkled in references to cars in his first talk with his team to get their attention and relate to them.

USC officials started their relationship with the Horn family with gifts: Gamecock hats from both Hyman and USC President Andrew Sorenson - to the Coach, the Horn children and wife Carla. Board of Trustees Chairman Herbert Adams gave Coach Horn a Garnet tie with a Block "C" and a Gamecock in the middle of the symbol.

An offense that stresses the three point shot was new and welcome news to three point specialist Evka Baniulis. "I actually didn't know he had a three point mentality," said the rising junior from Lithuania immediately after the news conference. "That's makes me even more happy." As Horn went around the room introducing himself to his players, he stressed to them to "be prepared to work and be in your best condition," recalled Baniulis. "I'm excited at having such a young coach because he is going to be more like a friend to you."

Rising sophomore Mike Holmes saw opportunity in the Horn system. USC's best inside threat, Holmes and fellow forward Dominique Archie were singled out by Horn as players who can be versatile on the court. The bulky, 6'7" Holmes thinks there might be a change in his role in the system, but not on the team. "I think I would rather do that, run the floor and get up and down. Just keep on rebounding the ball like I've been and pick up the defense." Holmes ended his freshman season on a roll with 16 points on 8-13 shooting against LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and 15 points and 11 rebounds in the quarterfinal loss to Tennessee.

"It sounds pretty good to me, so I can show them that I can run the floor pretty well," said Holmes, who did not play on a running team at Bishopville's Lee Central H.S. "He can relate to us more," because he is younger, said Holmes.

"He wants to be here, so that's all that matters to me," said Holmes

"I think it's a big change for everyone, him included," said Conrad, who will be playing for his third coach of his college career. "He's got a different style of game that he will play. He's a lot younger, a lot more energetic, and I think that he will relate real well to our players, and that's what I am looking forward to seeing."

Rising Senior Zam Frederick will also have Horn as his third college coach. The transfer from Georgia Tech thinks Horn's style is a good fit for him. "I think I have been the most successful playing this game at a high paced, defensive oriented game, up and down game. That's just how I learned to play the game back at home" in St. Mathews, less than 30 miles form Columbia, under father and Coach Zam Frederick Sr. at Calhoun County. Frederick expects Horn to sit down and talk to all the players individually. Frederick is already pointing to his senior season. "I've had flashes to show what I can do, that I can play at this level, and hopefully play at the next. But my senior campaign I feel is going to be a good one. And I'm gonna give it all I can to make sure that the program and the University gets the best out of me, as well as my team."

Hyman said Horn asked for time on his first day to work out his team. Hyman told him the schedule was already full and to schedule it the next day, Wednesday. Horn already had three recruiting appointments set up. "That's the kind of coach you are going to get at the University of South Carolina." Horn confirmed all three scheduled visits were in state. Trying to imagine the future, with hopes of SEC East crowns, an SEC regular season or Tournament title or two, and the ultimate goal - success in the NCAA Tournament - each committed Carolina fan should close their eyes and think about what they saw and heard from Horn. Past USC hires have all seemed solid, with the expected but perhaps too familiar themes of past success, not future promise. Each coach conducts a team much like an orchestra, trying to get different things from each section, but the same general thing from all: good music or good basketball.

What do Gamecock fans hear and feel when they anticipate the Horn era at Carolina? In the past the "notes" were always there, but something was always missing when it came to the most important part of the USC basketball team's performance. With this hire, does anyone hear and feel more than the basics of a basketball program? Hear instead the faint beginning of what USC fans may call a classic string of performances?

The reviews must wait. The players and Coach Horn cannot. They already hear the sweet sounds of bouncing basketballs and squeaking sneakers. It appears the notes, as expected, are there, but that the music is also on the horizon.

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