Gamecocks fire hoops coach Horn

South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman liked the improvements men’s basketball coach Darrin Horn made in academics and character development with the players.

There just wasn’t enough wins and the outlook was bleak.

”We didn’t have the hope out there for the program,” Hyman said.

Hyman fired Horn on Tuesday after four sliding seasons of Gamecock basketball. The team posted fewer victories in each year, bottoming out in the Southeastern Conference this season at 10-21 and 2-14 in the league — its worst record in 20 years in the SEC.

And as much as Hyman was impressed by the team’s off-the-court achievements, he couldn’t ignore the empty seats at games.

”I needed some ammunition” to make the case to keep Horn for a fifth season, Hyman said. ”He didn’t give me the ammunition.”

Instead, Hyman recommended Sunday to University President Harris Pastides that change was necessary. Hyman sat down with Horn on Tuesday.

”He’s been in this business,” Hyman said of the meeting. ”He understood.”

Hyman discussed the decision in the same room where about 500 fans gathered the day before to watch the women’s basketball team receive its first NCAA bid since 2003. He noted their success, along with the football team that won 11 games last season for the first time and a baseball team that has won two straight national championships.

The AD said he wants the school’s fourth high profile sport to operate on that level too.

”We really do want to have a basketball program that fulfills the aspirations that our board wants — a top 25 program,” Hyman said.

Hymen met with the players after talking to Horn to gauge what they wanted from their next coach. Make no mistake, Hyman said, while he’ll talk to advisers during the search, the final decision would rest with the AD. Hyman said he’ll take as much as time as necessary.

”But I do understand the sense of urgency” to complete the process as soon as possible, he said.

The athletic department was better financially with a reserve fund of about $12 million, Hyman said, than when it hired Horn in 2008, so he hoped to have more flexibility in the search for a new coach. He refused to speculate about any potential candidates.

Horn, who just completed his fourth season as the Gamecocks coach, has three years remaining on his contract and his owed a total of $2.4 million.

”I swallow when I think about it,” Hyman said of the buyout. ”In reality, that’s the arena we compete in.”

Horn was hired from Western Kentucky after leading the Hilltoppers to the Sweet 16 in 2008. His first team at South Carolina went 21-10 and 10-6 in the SEC, winning the Eastern Division. But it wasn’t enough to get the team’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2004, and his teams won fewer games each season.

Horn wasn’t at the news conference, but issued a statement thanking fans for their support.

”My family and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Columbia and wish nothing but the best for the Gamecocks,” Horn said.

The Gamecocks have lost 24 of their last 27 SEC games. Horn finishes his career at South Carolina 23-45 in league games and 60-63 overall with thee losing seasons in a row.

Fans had already expressed their frustration with Horn by not showing up. Average paid attendance this season was 8,900 people in the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. It was down about 1,500 fans with most games seeing less than half of the announced number actually in the stands.

Horn improved his team grade point average and his players kept out of trouble. The coach ”had his fingerprints on things we can be proud of,” Hyman said.

However, he had trouble keeping players. Expected starter Murphy Holloway returned to Mississippi after agreeing to play for Horn. Star point guard Bruce Ellington chose to play football, keeping him out of the opening games of this season. Several other players transferred.

Ellington, the team’s point guard and second-leading scorer this season, announced Monday that he was giving up football to concentrate on basketball for his final two years.

Horn has been a head coach at Western Kentucky and South Carolina for nine seasons with an overall record of 171-111.