Sometime on Christmas Eve, Darrin Horn will reach for his phone and do something he's done every Dec. 24 for the past 21 years.
Talk with Nolan Barger.
Horn, the former Western Kentucky and South Carolina men's basketball coach, and Barger, for whom Horn starred as a player at Tates Creek High School, do more than exchange Yuletide greetings.
They wish each other Happy Birthday.
Barger, who won 540 games before retiring at Tates Creek in 1999, was born on 12/24/1944.
Horn, the star player on Barger's 1991 Creek team that reached the state championship game, was born on 12/24/1972.
"Some years, it was just one or the other of us leaving a voice mail," Horn says. "But for, what, 20, 21 years now, we've talked in some version every Christmas Eve. It's been a neat thing."
The two-man holiday tradition began on Christmas Eve 1991. Horn was in his freshman year as a basketball player at Western Kentucky University. He called his old high school coach to say Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas.
Through the rest of Horn's playing days at WKU, his stints as an assistant coach at Morehead State and Marquette, and his time as head man at Western and then South Carolina, no Chistmas Eve since has passed without the two men contacting each other.
They make small talk. "I ask about his family," Barger says, "and he asks about mine."
The duo talk a little hoops. "When I was coaching, I'd always ask Coach if he'd had a chance to see my teams," says Horn, who was fired at South Carolina after last season and is using this year as something of a coaching sabbatical.
In their annual calls, the two say they do not commiserate over how unfair it is in terms of presents received to have a birthday so close to Christmas.
"A total slight," Horn jokes.
Over his 28 years patrolling the Tates Creek sidelines, Barger developed a reputation for fielding well-drilled teams that achieved above their talent level.
The 1970s and '80s were a golden age of high school hoops coaching in Lexington. The intra-city matchups among Barger at Tates Creek, Jock Sutherland at Lafayette, Bobby Barlow at Bryan Station and Al Prewitt at Henry Clay were epic.
In 1990-91, a Horn-led Tates Creek that featured eight seniors gave Barger the one title that had long and frustratingly eluded him: The 11th Region crown.
The '91 Commodores came achingly close to also giving the coach a state title, before falling 67-63 to defending state champ Fairdale (think Jermaine Brown, Maurice Morris and Carlos Turner) in the Sweet Sixteen finals.
"That team, those eight seniors, were special to Coach, and to all of us," said Donnie Adkins, Barger's former Tates Creek assistant who went on to win the state title in 2001 as head man at Lafayette.
Even when Horn, a 6-foot-3 guard, was in high school, Barger says he thought coaching could be in his future. "When he was playing for me, he would sit on the bench of our freshman team and help coach them," he said. "Even then, kids would follow Darrin."
WKU made Horn a major-college head coach by age 30. He led Western to four straight 20-win seasons, including the 2008 NCAA Tournament round of 16. In his first year at South Carolina, he guided the Gamecocks to a share of the 2009 SEC East title.
In Horn's head coaching jobs, he says he often heard himself saying things in practice that he recognized from Tates Creek. "I'd smile to myself and say, 'That's something I used to hear from Coach Barger,'" Horn says.
Last Christmas Eve, when it was apparent that Horn's hold on the South Carolina coaching job was precarious, Barger says he did not address that with his former player.
"That's just not something that is easy to talk about," he said. "I was still holding out hope it would turn around. But I know this about Darrin: He does not lack self-confidence. He'll learn what he needs to learn (from South Carolina), and get back in the game."
This Christmas, for the first time since he went to Western as a player in 1991, Horn is home in Lexington for the holidays. Yet on Christmas Eve, one thing from the past 21 years will not change. Horn and Barger will again wish each other Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday.
Barger's 68th. Horn's 40th.
Says Barger: "I'm going to give Darrin a hard time about that."