Final 4 is place to shop for coach On display are the fired and the fashionably hot

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS -- Terry Truax was walking through the hotel lobby Saturday afternoon, an hour before the first semifinal game in this year's Final Four.

The recently fired Towson State coach did not look any different than he did two weeks ago, but he sounded different.


"I always told myself that if I ever got fired, I wouldn't go to the Final Four," said Truax, who coached at Towson for 14 years before he was let go March 20. "I thought it was pretty sad to see guys, good coaches, who had just lost their jobs. I once saw two guys who had just gotten fired hugging each other, crying, right in front of the hotel. It was pretty tough to watch."

There were no such tear-jerking scenes at the two hotels where the coaches are being housed during college basketball's yearly celebration, but it's easy enough to tell who's hot and who's not. Those coming off big years are being glad-handed, while those who are on the verge of unemployment are gently patted on the back.


It has been a tumultuous postseason for Division I coaches. More than a dozen have been fired, including former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell. More than a dozen have been hired, including Driesell, who signed on at Georgia State three weeks after being let go by James Madison.

And then there are those who have stayed put, despite rumors of going elsewhere. Some, like Rick Barnes at Clemson, Eddie Fogler at South Carolina, Mike Montgomery at Stanford and Steve Robinson at Tulsa, received significant raises for their loyalty. Others, such as Maryland's Gary Williams and Wake Forest's Dave Odom, couldn't be enticed even to get involved.

"I think in the last five, 10, 15 years, there are so many more schools putting money into their basketball programs," said Odom, who turned down a chance to talk with Tennessee. "There used to be about 30; now there are 120. I think a lot of guys are looking more at their situation than strictly at the money. But the money is definitely a factor."

Said Williams, whose name has been one of many linked to Rutgers: "It can work both ways. If you are trying to get bumped up, it's not bad to have your name out there, as has been proven recently. But it can also hurt you in terms of recruiting. Other coaches will use it to tell recruits that you're going to be leaving."

The three biggest schools that fired coaches this year are still looking for replacements.

Ohio State has been turned down by Fogler, Barnes (a former Buckeyes assistant under Williams), Georgia's Tubby Smith and Montgomery, who worked for Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger while the two were at Stanford. Now the Buckeyes reportedly are courting Boston College's Jim O'Brien.

Tennessee has reportedly made contact with a number of coaches, including Barnes, Odom, Robinson, Tennessee-Chattanooga's Mack McCarthy and Virginia's Jeff Jones. The $500,000-a-year package the Volunteers are offering will go a long way in Knoxville, but it isn't as much as the Atlantic Coast Conference coaches are making and not enough for either Robinson or McCarthy to go. McCarthy had his salary package (( doubled after taking the Mocs to the Sweet 16.

And then there's Rutgers, where the search has become a source of embarrassment. After Williams, who grew up in New Jersey, told athletic director Fred Gruninger that he wasn't interested in formally interviewing for the job, the Big East school was rejected by Fogler and Texas' Tom Penders.


The search at Rutgers took another turn Friday, when Bill Herrion of Drexel turned down an offer. Herrion declined, those familiar with the situation say, in part because Rutgers' three-year deal -- worth between $250,000 and $300,000 -- was significantly less than the seven-year contract former Duke assistant Tommy Amaker signed earlier in the week at Seton Hall. Amaker's contract is worth an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 a year.

"There's a lot of ego involved," said one veteran coach.

That's the more publicized part of this invisible revolving door that has become Division I coaching's postseason circus. The other side occurs among those who've been fired and are looking to get back in while their resumes are still fresh.

It has been three years since Butch Estes left Furman because of what he calls "philosophical differences," an often-used phrase for getting out before getting fired. Estes, who had been at the South Carolina school for nine years and had six winning seasons that included a trip to the National Invitation Tournament, is working as a sportscaster in Atlanta.

"I just miss coaching," said Estes, 48. "I still have an affair with competition."

So there was Estes Saturday afternoon, being introduced by Auburn coach Cliff Ellis to Dick Berg, a former Division I coach at Hofstra who is athletic director at the University of West Florida, a growing Division I program in Pensacola, Fla. It seems that Berg knows the athletic director at Pensacola Junior College, which has a head coaching vacancy.


The job interests Estes, he said, mainly because he believes that he could win a national championship there and put himself back in position to get another Division I job. Estes, who played at North Carolina for Dean Smith, knows that it's getting more difficult to hook on. He also knows that junior college athletic directors are wary about hiring former Division I coaches.

"A lot of [Division I] schools, even the smaller ones, are looking to hire big names," said Estes, using Georgia State's hiring of Driesell and Jacksonville's hiring of former Georgia coach Hugh Durham as examples. "I was on that bus once, but I'm not on it anymore."

Neither, apparently, is Truax. He once was considered for bigger jobs after taking Towson State to a couple of NCAA tournaments, but two losing records in his last three seasons and a new athletic director have left Truax among those looking in from the outside.

Since learning that his contract wouldn't be renewed, Truax has spoken with two old friends who wield a great deal of influence. Smith, for whom Truax worked as a graduate assistant many years ago, called him last week before coming here for North Carolina's semifinal. Joe Dean, the LSU athletic director, for whom Truax worked while both were with Converse, called to offer support.

"Everyone tells me that this is the place to be," said Truax. "But I don't think it is. I don't think it's good for guys in my situation."

He walked off, into a crowded lobby and an uncertain future, the invisible revolving door spinning.


Pub Date: 3/31/97