By Matt Karner | @karner44
Sports Capital Journalism Program, IUPUI
INDIANAPOLIS — The unprecedented success of the Northern Kentucky Norse men’s basketball program continues to flourish under new head coach Darrin Horn after its 71-62 victory over UIC in the Horizon League Men’s Basketball Championship.
In only its fourth year as an active Division I member, Northern Kentucky has earned three Horizon League tournament championships. NKU has won two regular-season Horizon League titles. The Norse became the first Horizon League team to repeat as tournament champions since Butler University in 2010 and 2011, while missing the NCAA tournament just once in four years.
Northern Kentucky is the first team in Division I history to achieve at that level in its first four seasons. The unparalleled success starts with the family, the culture and the community that has been built in Highland Heights, Kentucky.
After the reclassification process, there was never any doubt that the Norse would find success. The athletic administration has created a culture where coaches can and will flourish.
“I hope it’s about culture number one,” said Northern Kentucky athletic director Ken Bothof. “I think we’ve done a great job with the people we’ve hired in administrative positions that have made good evaluations on our coaches. Those that are in our programs and those that are having success.”
The men’s basketball success has been obvious. John Brannen, head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, was a part of the process and successfully gave the Norse a purpose and a tradition to play for. He led the Norse to a 81-51 record with two Horizon League regular season and tournament championships. When Brannen left for Cincinnati there was confidence at Northern Kentucky that the program would sustain its success.
“As our attendance grew, we knew we could sustain it and keep growing it,” said Bothof. “I’m very fortunate obviously with the job that our coaches have done. [We are] extremely fortunate to have hired John and now Darrin and to see this success continue.”
It was evident that the administration has been an important factor in the progress of the program. With a championship title and a facetime call with his son, Horn tracked down Bothof with a bear hug, the gratitude visible on the smile on both men’s faces. Bothof has helped build the culture that is perceived throughout the university community.
The culture trickles down from the administration, to the coaches, to the players. The tradition and achievements, the winning mentality and the winning culture are reasons that Horn accepted the offer to become coach.
“From day one we told these guys I’m here because I have a ton of respect for what you’ve done,” Horn said. “I think that there’s a lot we can learn about how you’ve been successful here.”
The players can feel and experience the traditions that have been built and continue to grow. With 16 points in the win over UIC, senior guard Tyler Sharpe knew that Northern Kentucky was the right place. When he had the opportunity to leave as a result of the coaching change, Sharpe’s belief and faith in Northern Kentucky were apparent.
“Coach Horn and staff came in and I knew right away that they had faith in us that we could get right back to this point,” Sharpe said. “I knew their belief in us was not going to waver. I think it’s just the culture of winning. When I first got here they just came off their first championship, but it wasn’t a fluke. Everybody in the program felt that it was the way things were supposed to be and they had a plan to keep it going here, so that’s what drew me here.”
Northern Kentucky has built a foundation of achievements unlike any other. The program is built not on one coach or one player, but its success can be attributed to the the culture that Northern Kentucky has created. The greatness has been built upon the players of the past, and now the current players and coaches can continue to build upon the cornerstone to reach new heights.