Men's Basketball

Darrin Horn coming home as the visitor

For just one moment, Darrin Horn said he won't be able to help himself.

When the former Lexington high school basketball star enters Rupp Arena on Saturday for the first time as a college coach, the South Carolina head man will take just a second and bask in the moment.

"I don't know that I'll dwell on it for very long. I can't. I have a job to do," Horn said Thursday. "But, sure, there is a special element to it."

For the family and friends of the former Tates Creek High School star here in Lexington, the word special doesn't begin to do Saturday's Kentucky-South Carolina game justice.

Try weird. Surreal. Exciting. And really, really different.

"Oh man, it is, it's going to be weird," said Greg Horn, a Lexington minister and the Carolina coach's oldest brother. "I'm really in a unique situation because when I was in college I lived in Wildcat Lodge for three years."

Missy Hardin, Darrin Horn's older sister, said, "You have to understand. We grew up UK all the way. To think, now my kid brother is coming back to lead a team into Rupp Arena. It's hard to believe, really."

Basketball fans in Kentucky need no reintroduction to Darrin Horn. In 1991, he was an overachieving guard who led an overachieving Tates Creek team to the finals of the 1991 state tournament.

There, the Commodores lost a heartbreaker to a Fairdale team winning its second straight state title. Not recruited by UK, Horn went to Western Kentucky where he became a starter for Ralph Willard on the Hilltoppers team that advanced to the NCAA round of 16 in 1993.

WKU fans still get a bit of a glow recalling the last-second bomb from the deep corner Horn hit to beat Louisville by a point (78-77) in Freedom Hall in 1993.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that a player known for leadership and performance under pressure would head into coaching.

When he was the senior star at Tates Creek in 1991, Horn spent his free time helping coach the school's freshman team, recalls his high school coach, Nolan Barger.

Chris O'Bryan, who played with Horn on the '91 state runners-up, recalled a specific moment from the Sweet Sixteen championship game.

"We were down three, there were 14 seconds to go and we were coming out of a timeout," O'Bryan said. "After Coach Barger was through talking to us, Darrin gathered everyone around and said, 'We're going to win this game and this is how we're going to do it.'

"Now that isn't how it turned out. But I'll never forget, a lot of us, maybe, were a little nervous. After Darrin spoke, he had a calming effect on all of us. From that point, I always thought, whatever he did, he would end up in a leadership role."

There was another aspect of Horn's time at Tates Creek that might have foretold the people skills necessary to succeed in big-time college coaching.

"Darrin was a good-looking guy, he was the star of the basketball team and the most popular kid in our school," said O'Bryan, now the head basketball coach at East Jessamine High. "But he went out of his way to make everybody feel like he was their friend. He included everybody."

Still, what seems inevitable in hindsight did not necessarily seem so in real time. Those who knew Darrin Horn back then say they did not necessarily think his choice would be basketball as a career.

"I thought he would go into business," said Ed Horn of the youngest of his and wife Lois' four children. "I didn't know exactly what line, but I thought he would be a businessman."

(The fourth Horn sibling, Missy's twin brother Michael, is a Lexington oncologist.)

Said Greg Horn: "When he was little, I can't say I thought Darrin would go into coaching. I didn't. But, you know, we really should have seen it. Darrin wasn't the best athlete, but he was always a team leader. Kids would follow him, they always have."

The road to Rupp

Darrin Horn's path to becoming an SEC head coach started at Western, where he helped coach after his playing days were done.

When Kyle Macy became head coach at Morehead State in 1997, he brought Horn east as an assistant.

"In coaching, you never know when opportunities will come, so I can't say I thought 'this guy will be an SEC head coach by 35,'" said Wayne Breeden, who worked with Horn on the Morehead staff. "But, even then, he was really good at communicating with players. That's a big, big part of coaching."

Tom Crean, a former Western assistant, hired Horn at Marquette in 1999. The former Lexington high school star was on the bench when Dwyane Wade nuked UK in the 2003 NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.

Horn parlayed the buzz from Marquette's Final Four trip into the head coaching job at his alma mater, WKU.

He was a college head man at the ripe old age of 30.

After doing as a coach last season at Western what he had done as a player — help the Hilltoppers to the NCAA round of 16 — Horn again struck while he was hot.

He took the head coaching job at perennially underachieving South Carolina. It meant he became an SEC head man at 35. The Gamecocks will bring a 15-4 record into Rupp on Saturday.

South Carolina's coach, now 36, understands what his presence in our state's marquee basketball venue will mean to his family and friends in Lexington.

"I know what me being an SEC head coach means to a lot of the people where I grew up, that I've sort of arrived," Horn said. "I know this will really be special for my family and the people I grew up with."

No one can argue that.

Barger said Saturday will be a unique experience for him.

"For the first time, I will be in Rupp Arena pulling for the opponent," said the retired, longtime Lexington high school coach. "And I make no apologies for that."

Blane Hardin, Darrin Horn's 8-year-old nephew, has been trying to convince his second-grade classmates at the Lexington Christian Academy that "the Gamecocks are the way to go," said Missy Hardin.

A UK fan under normal circumstances, Blane plans to be in Rupp with his face painted South Carolina garnet to support his "Uncle D."

With his own past ties to UK basketball, Greg Horn said it's hard to think of rooting against Kentucky.

"But blood is thicker than Blue," he said. "I'll be pulling hard for my little brother."

Even if the thought of seeing him coaching against the Cats in Rupp is a bit surreal.