Men's Basketball

Mark Story: Darrin Horn still looking for way back into college hoops head coaching ranks


The college basketball head coaching carousel whirls round and round. Darrin Horn continues to wait for an invitation to reboard.

There are now two full seasons in the books since Horn, the former Tates Creek High School and Western Kentucky University hoops standout and ex-WKU head coach, got the pink slip as head man at South Carolina.

In what should be some of the prime years of his coaching life, the 41-year-old Horn is instead learning the ropes of television as a college hoops analyst for ESPN.

"My goals haven't changed," Horn said last week. "I still want to coach, still want to be a head coach."

With all but a smattering of this offseason's college hoops vacancies filled, it seems all but certain that Horn will not be head coaching in 2014-15.

"I'll be back with ESPN next year," he said. "I've got a contract and I'll have an expanded presence from what I've been doing. So I'm excited about that."

After Horn was fired at South Carolina with a 60-63 record over four years, he made the decision not to stay in college coaching as an assistant. Instead, he and his family, wife Carla, daughter Caroline, son Walker, moved back to Darrin's hometown of Lexington.

"I'm still not ready to take an assistant's role yet," Horn said. "My kids are 13 and (will turn) 11 on Monday. You go back in as an assistant, you don't know how many times you're looking at moving (your kids) in a few short years. The other thing, I liked being the head coach, running your own program."

Being on ESPN allows Horn to maintain visibility in college hoops. With ESPN set to launch the SEC Network later this year, Horn would seem a natural fit for that platform. The ESPN analyst previously most identified with the SEC, Jimmy Dykes, left to become the new women's head basketball coach at Arkansas.

"I think that's a possibility," Horn said of the SEC Network. "There's no Jimmy Dykes. I'm the most familiar with the league they've got who's not 55, 60 years old."

It is hard not to contrast the approach Horn has taken post-South Carolina to the course John Pelphrey chose after he was fired as head coach at Arkansas following the 2010-11 season. The ex-Kentucky forward, a longtime Billy Donovan aide at Florida before starting his head coaching career at South Alabama in 2002-03, went back to the Gators as an assistant.

Which path is best if the goal is making it back as a college head coach?

Horn is trying to replicate what Steve Lavin did after he was fired at UCLA in 2003. Lavin kept his profile high through work as a studio and color analyst for ESPN. In 2010, he was able to land the head coaching job at St. John's.

Pelphrey should draw inspiration from Doc Sadler. After being fired as Nebraska head coach in 2012, Sadler spent one year as director of basketball operations at Kansas and another as an assistant at Iowa State. This spring, Sadler was named head coach at Southern Mississippi.

What had to be dispiriting this year for both Horn and Pelphrey, 45, is that their names did not appear to get much traction for openings at schools such as Marshall or Southern Miss where either, I thought, would have made sense.

Pelphrey as a head coach took both South Alabama and Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament. Horn as a head coach went 111-48 at Western Kentucky and led the Hilltoppers to the 2008 NCAA tourney round of 16. He coached South Carolina to a share of the 2009 SEC East title, too.

Yet both Horn and Pelphrey are up against a harsh big-time, college sports reality. As the late Royce Waltman, the former Indiana State head coach, once put it: "If you get fired for cheating, you can get hired right back again. If you get fired for losing, it's like you've got leprosy."

So while he searches for a way back into head coaching, Horn has his TV work. Last winter, his second appearing on ESPN networks, he appeared far more comfortable. Horn says he learned better how to prepare for games and gained a keener understanding of the role of a color analyst.

"More than being able to say 'This player had 18 points in his last game,' I needed to be able to say, 'This is how many games in a row he's been in double figures and that means this for the team,'" Horn said. "(TV is) like anything else, you get better with reps."

Still, for Horn, the long-term goal remains rejoining the profession of Mike Krzyzewski, not remaining in the one of Jay Bilas.