The Chosen One

Danny Schoenbaechler

The rolling hills of Warren County are awash with peaks and valleys. The highs and lows get so intertwined that it can be difficult to decipher the difference.

This scenic landscape has become home for Darrin Horn. His personality seems to fit comfortably along with the constant flow of zenith and canyon.

When asked about Hilltopper teams of the past, Horn fires back like a historian recalling the cause of the Civil War. But when asked about his feelings on returning to Diddle Arena, Horn swiftly deflects the topic and talks about his players’ impressive work ethic.

He clearly loves his family and eagerly leaves practice every night to go home and spend time with his wife Carla and two young children.

But this is after finishing two hours of barking instructions.

As a 30-year-old head coach, Horn can resemble the innocence of David with a splash of Goliath’s ferociousness.

This ability to emit hot and cold traits may be why Horn was a beloved Western player.

His Big Red career began in the fall of 1991 as a Bluegrass-grown recruit from Tates Creek High School in Lexington.

As successful as Horn’s predecessor Dennis Felton was, Felton’s tenure is easily trumped by Horn’s time in a Western jersey.

Horn was part of four 20-win seasons and two Sun Belt Conference titles. More importantly to Hilltopper faithful, he was part of Western’s last Sweet 16 appearance.

The Sweet 16 is why Horn is back in Bowling Green. He has made it as a player at Western and an assistant coach with Marquette last spring. The problem is that no current Hilltoppers have ever tasted the NCAA second round, not to mention the third.

“The biggest thing I learned is that I want to go back,” Horn said.

SUBHED: The old era

The Western basketball program was in shambles when Matt Kilcullen was forced out during the spring of 1998.

That fall Felton took over, and in his five seasons he took the Toppers to three NCAA Tournament appearances.

The Felton era was a short but successful one, but winning an NCAA Tournament game is what Horn needs to do to distinguish himself from Felton.

Senior Todor Pandov said that Horn and Felton are very similar in the one way that matters.

“They are both winning coaches,” Pandov said. “So I don’t see many differences in that sense.”

The team Horn has adopted has experience, but its two point guards are unproven, and the starting front court didn’t play last season.

If he can mold his team together, they have the potential to win a fourth consecutive Sun Belt crown – if not, then his first year will be viewed as a failure by many onlookers.

Horn hasn’t experienced many failures in his life, and he doesn’t plan on starting now.

He spent last March on a run through the tournament, which helped propel him back to Western.

SUBHED: From Milwaukee to Bowling Green

A year ago, Horn didn’t seem to be five months from being a Hilltopper head coach.

In the time it took the earth to orbit the sun, one basketball season was completed, and the actions of two programs changed Horn’s life.

A team from Wisconsin reached ecstatic heights, and one from Georgia reached devastating lows.

The shock waves from those two teams launched Horn back to his collegiate roots in Bowling Green.

Horn and his boss, Tom Crean, helped lead Marquette to its first Final Four since 1977. The result was Crean being rumored as leaving the Milwaukee school for a bigger program.

Crean decided to stay at Marquette, and his assistant took advantage of the opportunity for advancement.

The only reason the Western job was open was because of NCAA violations at Georgia.

Jim Harrick’s basketball program came under fire at the end of the regular season, and his departure gave Felton his own chance for mobility.

Felton couldn’t pass up a Southeastern Conference coaching job. He bolted to Athens, taking his entire coaching staff with him.

The success of Marquette 509 miles north and the demise of Georgia 367 miles south gave Western Athletic Director Wood Selig a chance to hire from within the Hilltopper family.

By the time the calendar reached the ides of April, Horn had returned to the Hill to write the next chapter of Hilltopper basketball history.

He donned a red blazer on April 15. Selig reintroduced Horn to Western.

“I’m extremely excited to be coming back to Western Kentucky University – which is home for me,” Horn said. “My pride for the program and passion for the success of Western Kentucky will be very important in taking advantage of this opportunity.”

Six months later, it was time for Midnight Madness. Horn’s entrance was fitting, as he jogged onto the Diddle Arena floor to the tune of Montgomery Gentry’s song “My Town.”

His sweatsuit made him appear much younger than his 30 years.

His clothes and smile seemed juxtaposed with the neatly creased part on the right side of his head.

That was the start of practice and the inception of a new era of Hilltopper basketball.

“This is a great basketball team and it has great tradition,” Horn said.

His team didn’t get the start he was looking for, losing 86-64 to Auburn last Friday, but the Topper players are still adjusting to a new system.

Horn’s system is faster and more diverse than Felton’s.

“Coach Felton was more of a half court-type coach,” senior center Nigel Dixon said. “Coach Horn is more of an up and down, more fast-paced coach.”

Horn wants his team to run more, but he also uses plenty of zone defense.

Two styles that are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum.

They contrast each other.

Kind of like peaks and valleys.

Reach Danny Schoenbaechler at [email protected]