AUBURN - Tim Horton was an All-Southwest Conference wide receiver at Arkansas and later coached some of the top players in Arkansas history. His father was an assistant coach at Arkansas, retired last summer as executive director of the Razorback Foundation and is a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Tim Horton turned down an offer to remain at his alma mater and joined Gus Malahn's Auburn staff
The University of Arkansas is part of who Tim Horton is, and it always will be. He grew up there. He helped running backs Daren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis excel and become NFL starters. He doubled as recruiting coordinator and became known as one of the top recruiters in the SEC.
But today, Horton is Auburn's tight ends coach and proud of it.
Bret Beliema was named head coach at Arkansas in December, and he soon offered Horton the opportunity to remain and coach tight ends. But on Jan. 4, Horton declined and signed on with first-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. His wife Lauren, daughter Caroline and son Jackson will arrive soon.
"Coach Malzahn offered me first, and I was just excited and thrilled to be able to come to a place like Auburn," Horton says. "It just felt right. Obviously, when you've competed against Auburn and have so much respect for Auburn like we did at Arkansas, this is great place with great people.
"I've coached with people throughout the years that went to Auburn and played at Auburn and coached at Auburn. You've never heard a bad word about it. It's a very, very special place."
Horton knew Malzahn from the days when he was at Air Force and recruited the state of Arkansas. Malzahn was the head coach at Springdale High School. It was Malzahn and the staff he has put together, Horton says, that led him to make the move.
"I know everyone on this staff," Horton says. "I have crossed paths, I have coached with, I've been around, I've recruited against just about everybody around that staff table. I know what kinds of coaches they are, but more importantly, they are a great collection of men. I would love for my son to play for this group of coaches. These are good men whose values and character are similar to what I hope mine are."
What turned out to be Horton's final Arkansas season was not the stuff of dreams. Last summer's scandal involving a former volleyball player cost head coach Bobby Petrino his job. He was fired and replaced by interim coach John L. Smith. Expected to challenge for the national championship, Arkansas went 4-8.
Tim Horton earned respect as a developer of players and as a recruiter at Arkansas
"It was rough," Horton says. "We had a tough year. We literally last four times on the last play of the game."
Horton is proud of the highly successful players he coached at Arkansas, and he's viewed in the coaching business as an outstanding developer of players on and off the field. Recruiting, for him, is a labor of love.
"Really, recruiting is my hobby, too," Horton says. "When I have extra time, I'm going to write a note, watch a video, call a high school coach. I don't fish or hunt or do those things, so my hobby is recruiting. I think, if you are a coach, that is probably a good thing.
"I really enjoy the relationship part, not just with the players but the mamas and daddies and families. I've been really fortunate because I've always felt like I've been at a place where I have a good thing to sell. Definitely, Auburn is a great thing to sell."
For the first 13 years of his life, Horton was around Arkansas football almost every day. His father coached linebackers for Frank Broyles and the defensive line for Lou Holtz.
"I ran around those practice fields and ran around the stadium," Horton says. "The players taped me to the goal post, all those kinds of things. I've been around the game, really, my whole life."
It was in Conway, Ark., where his father became head coach at Central Arkansas University, that Horton began the journey that would lead to his life's work, a journey that would lead him back to those Arkansas practice fields and beyond.
From 1986-89, Horton caught passes and returned punts on teams coached by Ken Hatfield. He had talent and he understood the game. He made All-SEC in 1989 and was a two-time academic All-SWC selection. Though he majored in business, he soon realized his future was in the game he loved.
Harold Horton is a member of the Arkanas Sports Hall of Fame
Arkansas assistant Jerry Moore told Horton that, when he got a head coaching job, he wanted to take him along. When Moore was named head coach at Appalachian State, he was true to his word. In 1990, months after his Arkansas career ended, Horton was an assistant coach at Appalachian State. He stayed there for nine seasons. Along the way he coached with Lionel James and Stacy Searels, both former Auburn greats.
"Two great Auburn men," Horton says. "We would play racquetball. If I won, I would make Searels sing the Arkansas fight song. If he won, I had to sing the Auburn fight song. So, I know the Auburn fight song. I know it real well."
In 1999, Horton joined Fisher DeBerry's staff at Air Force. He moved to Kansas State for one season and then returned to Air Force as offensive coordinator. But in July, Arkansas called and he went home as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Houston Nutt left after one season, but Bobby Petrino kept Horton on.
It was Horton's last Arkansas team that sent former Auburn coach Gene Chizik's Auburn career into a downward spiral that could not be stopped. When the Razorbacks went to Auburn, they had lost to Louisiana-Monroe and Rutgers and had been outscored 110-10 by Texas A&M and Alabama. They won 24-7 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Auburn was headed for a 3-9 season.
Horton joins a program still stinging from the worst Auburn season in 60 years.
"I think the most important thing you have to establish with your players is about being honest, fair, responsible, respectable and compassionate," Horton says. "You have those five things, and then you have the most important thing. That is trust. If you have that trust, you have a chance to be very successful. Part of that trust is building a relationship. To me, one of the really important things to do early is build that relationship.
"I've really been impressed with the players, the ones I've met. A lot of times, if there are problem children, they will eliminate themselves. The fence-riders will either get on or they won't be here. It's pretty simple."
Horton says he has no doubt that Malzahn will take Auburn back to the top, and he says he welcomes the challenge of sharing the state with Alabama, winner of three of the past four national championships. Auburn, he readily points out, is only two years removed from a national championship of its own.
"Really, let's just worry about the things we can control," Horton says. "We can control working hard. We can control our attitude. We're not worried about anything else right now. Let's take it one day at a time and worry about the Tigers."
Horton's ultimate goal is to be a head coach, but he says that goal is not the driving force in his life.
"I would like to do that one day," Horton says, "but to be honest, I want to make sure I'm a good dad first."