Mark Story

A head coach again at 46, Darrin Horn plots how to help NKU ‘take the next step’

NKU’s Drew McDonald grew up a Kentucky fan

Northern Kentucky's leading scorer Drew McDonald said he was a UK fan growing up in Newport. NKU plays Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.
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Northern Kentucky's leading scorer Drew McDonald said he was a UK fan growing up in Newport. NKU plays Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night.

Darrin Horn sees his task as the new head men’s basketball coach at Northern Kentucky University in basic terms:

Find a way to improve a program whose already high level of success allowed John Brannen to parlay the Norse head coaching job into the same position with the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Over the past three seasons, Brannen led NKU to appearances in the NCAA Tournament (2017), the NIT (2018) and the NCAA tourney (last season).

Making that run even more impressive, the success came about in the first three school years that the Norse were eligible to appear in the NCAA Division I postseason after completing their transition from Division II status.

“I think what they have done here has been awesome,” Horn said Thursday via the phone. “But I think the charge — even if John was still here — is ‘OK, what is the next step?’”

Horn, star guard on Tates Creek’s 1991 Sweet Sixteen runner-up team and the former head coach at Western Kentucky and South Carolina, has an ambitious vision for what Northern Kentucky basketball should aspire to next.

He envisions sellouts of NKU’s home venue, the 9,400-seat BB&T Arena; scoring wins against “elite competition” in non-conference contests; and not just making the NCAA Tournament, but winning a March Madness game.

“Those are all really, really lofty goals, maybe in some ways a harder step to take than the ones they’ve already taken,” Horn says. “But I just think that is kind of the natural progression of it.”

At 46, Horn is relaunching a head coaching career that was derailed when he was fired by South Carolina in 2012.

The Lexington product had once been on the coaching fast track. At age 30, Horn’s college alma mater, WKU, made him a Division I college head coach.

By 35, Horn had led the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 and turned that success into an SEC head coaching job.

In his first season at South Carolina, Horn directed the Gamecocks to a season sweep of Kentucky and a share of the SEC East title.

The following year, Horn led South Carolina to an upset of No. 1 and unbeaten UK in John Calipari’s inaugural season as Cats coach.

Darrin Horn
Darrin Horn high-fived a South Carolina fan after a Gamecocks victory. Horn, a Tates Creek High School graduate, won his first three games against UK as South Carolina head coach but lost his final five.

That, alas, proved to be the highlight of Horn’s South Carolina tenure. After Horn’s first four seasons in Columbia yielded a 60-63 record, the school fired him.

At age 39, Horn was a former college head coach.

Horn and his wife, Carla, moved their two children to Lexington (where the coach’s mom and three siblings still live in 2019).

For three years, Horn was out of coaching and working as a television analyst for the SEC Network and other ESPN platforms.

“I didn’t know if I would be able to get back into coaching at a decent level,” Horn said. “When I was out of coaching, you do something (else) for two or three years and you go ‘I don’t know, maybe it is not going to happen again.’”

Thanks to Shaka Smart, Horn was able to “get back into” college coaching. The two had become friends as they each climbed the coaching ladder.

When Smart left a highly successful stint at VCU to become head man at Texas, he brought Horn with him to Austin as an assistant. “When Shaka gave me that opportunity, it was a blessing,” Horn says. “I hope I was good for him; I know he was great for me.”

This spring, after the long-and-winding UCLA coaching search finally ended on Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, Brannen made the move across the Ohio River to UC.

John Brannen
John Brannen led Northern Kentucky to two NCAA Tournaments and an NIT trip over the past three years. After last season, Brannen left NKU for the head coaching job at Cincinnati. Paul Sancya AP

For Horn, the attractions of the NKU vacancy were myriad.

“It’s home. It’s basketball country. They’ve got a great tradition going back even to when they were in Division II,” Horn says. “Obviously, they’ve put themselves in position to be one the better teams and programs in the (Horizon League).”

In the time since NKU President Ashish Vaidya and Athletics Director Ken Bothof hired Horn, the coach has sold the family home in Austin. “We close on a place here in July,” Horn says. “That’s when my family will move up here.”

This fall, Horn’s daughter, Caroline, 18, will be a college freshman at Clemson. His son, Walker, 16, will be a high school sophomore at Covington Catholic, where he plans to play basketball.

Their Dad will be resuming his head coaching career in his home state. Darrin Horn’s task will be to push NKU’s already successful program upward.

“I’m trying to be real clear — maybe careful is a better word — John (Brannen) and his staff did a great job here,” Horn says. “I’m not coming here with some answer or some formula that is secret or different. I’m just looking at how do we to take this program the next steps.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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