When Terry Truax was fired as the basketball coach at what is now Towson University in 1997, he didn't know what he would do next. But after more than a quarter-century as a Division I head coach and assistant, he figured he wouldn't have to coach a high school team.
As it turned out, the end of Truax's Towson tenure marked the beginning of a nine-year coaching odyssey that put him with players ranging from South Korean pros to 12-year-old rec league girls. For the past three years, he coached at Yeshivat Rambam, a Jewish school in Northwest Baltimore.
To say the experience rearranged his priorities would be an understatement.
"Now I really understand the purpose of what I do," Truax, 62, said recently. "It's not about the coaching. It's about the interaction with young people."
The idea of coaching high school players isn't just palatable to him now; it's what he wants.
"This is more rewarding," he said. "It doesn't pay as well, but it's much more rewarding."
Next month, after more than two decades in Baltimore, Truax will relocate to Lenoir, N.C., to coach the varsity at the Patterson School, a prep school with a strong basketball program that produces Division I talent. It amounts to his re-entry to the major college pipeline, but that matters to him less than the chance to influence talented youngsters.
"I think I can help them improve as players, but I'm really concerned about them being stimulated to learn [in school]. It's a chance to do what I can to make a difference," said Truax, who took two Towson teams to the NCAA tournament in 14 years at the school and, according to the school's sports information office, also graduated at least 95 percent of his players.
Patterson is getting a coach with nothing left to prove except that he still burns to do things right, a coach who was an assistant under North Carolina's Dean Smith, corresponds with UCLA legend John Wooden and holds strong opinions about the state of the game he loves.
Coaches? They're paid too much, Truax said. Recruiting and academic scandals? They're the function of misplaced priorities.
"It's easy for me to say because I've never made a lot of money coaching," he said. "But I don't think a coach should get paid for what kind of shoes a kid wears. I don't think a coach should get a bonus because his kids graduate. What do you go to college for? What's the message we're sending in terms of entitlement for these guys? This is why we have a lot of the problems we have."
More than 100 coaches applied for the Patterson job, said Colin Stevens, the school's headmaster. The pool included Division II head coaches, Division I assistants and NBA scouts. But Truax's application ended the search.
"His basketball expertise speaks for itself, but what is much more important to me is the way he conducts himself. Integrity is a word I keep coming back to," Stevens said.
Besides coaching, Truax will teach a full load of English classes, focusing on poetry. He and his wife, Pam, who will also work at the school, will live on Patterson's remote campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It's hardly where Truax expected to land when he was an ambitious young coach in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the Hancock , Md., native played for Bud Millikan (and teamed with Gary Williams) at the University of Maryland, he took a job coaching the freshman team at powerhouse DeMatha High and won 50 straight games with future NBA star Adrian Dantley among his players. Then he rose through the college ranks as an assistant at Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado and Mississippi State, always dreaming of the day when he might lead a program capable of winning the national title.
"I was naive enough to think, in 1974, at age 30, that I could be the next coach at Kentucky," he said. "Thirty years later, the realism has set in."
He became a head coach when Towson (then Towson State) hired him in 1983. The school had just moved to Division I, and Truax established a long-range goal of taking a team to the NCAA tournament. He made it in 1990, and then again in 1991.
His program never had a whiff of scandal and was relatively successful; although Truax's career record was 202-203, the Tigers had winning records in seven of his last nine seasons.
"When we recruited, we said, 'We promise nothing and we live up to our promise,'" he said. "I would ask recruits, 'Is earning a degree important to you?' If they said yes, I'd say, 'Oh, good, then I shouldn't have a problem with you missing class, should I?' I lost a couple of kids that way."
Sent on his way
A change in Towson's athletic administration (and maybe a 9-19 record in the 1996-97 season) led to his ouster in 1997. Towson hasn't had a winning season since he left. Current Tigers coach Pat Kennedy is the program's third in nine years.
Truax couldn't resist applying the needle when he was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame at a dinner in 2004.
"When they pulled the plug on me, I was told they were 'going to go in another direction,' and my comment [at the 2004 dinner] was, 'You sure did,' " he said with a smile.
He didn't deny that getting fired hurt and even depressed him, even though he never made more than $70,000 a year at Towson, including what he earned with a summer camp. Kennedy reportedly is paid at least twice as much.
"But that horse is dead," Truax said, declining to review the situation.
He didn't land another college job after being fired, despite his solid credentials.
"I've had people tell me I never networked enough," Truax said.
Needing a paycheck, he took a job as an assistant with a South Korean pro team and was gone from his wife and young daughter for six months. He came back to coach the Baltimore BayRunners, a minor league pro team that went under.
Over the next couple of years, his coaching assignments ranged from his daughter's Towson Rec Council team ("They listened better than anyone") to a team in China to another minor league team in Prince George's County. He also helped out at Gilman for one season.
At every stop, he taught offensive principles handed down from Dean Smith and philosophies gleaned from conversations with Wooden, whom he met and befriended in the 1970s.
"Sometimes good coaches just get lost in the shuffle. Terry is one of the most knowledgeable coaches I know," said Stu Vetter, a national-caliber high school coach for more than two decades and currently the head coach at Montrose Christian in Rockville.
In 2003, Yeshivat Rambam hired Truax to run its athletic program and physical education department. He coached the girls varsity for a season, the boys junior varsity for a season and the boys varsity last season. It was a long way from March Madness, but Truax enjoyed having players so deeply committed to their academics and faith.
"Being there was a wonderful experience," he said.
He told his players he had once dreamed of winning the NCAA title, but now, his criteria for a successful season boiled down to three basic questions each player should ask: Did you learn? Did you improve? Did you have fun?
His last season at Rambam, in which he coached the boys varsity, was perhaps his best ever, he said.
"Of all the teams I've coached, I can truly say these kids could go home every day and say, 'Did you learn? Yes. Did you improve? Yes. Did you have fun? Yes,' " Truax said.
The father of a Rambam player said Truax will be missed.
"He seemed to have the entire nature of a child at heart rather than just the athletic component," said Aron Raskas, a Baltimore attorney. "He instilled in every kid an understanding that with a spot on the team comes responsibilities to his coach, teammates, school and not the least to himself. I was very impressed. My son really grew as a person, and I attribute the bulk of it to [Truax]. He's not raising prima donnas. He's raising good people. In this era, that's significant."
Rambam's players felt so close to Truax that they bought him a special yarmulke on a trip to Israel and brought it home for him to wear in a big game.
"As the teams were warming up, I had one of the fathers pinning it on me," Truax said. "The first time I jumped up, it slid down and I looked like I had an earmuff on. But it was important to the kids."
On his last day at Rambam last spring, Truax oversaw a morning free period in the gym and noted that every middle schooler was shooting the basketball correctly - perfect form, perfect rotation.
"That makes you feel good, like you have really taught them and made a difference," Truax said.
The move to Patterson will bring about a lifestyle change. In Lenoir, a town of 14,000, "the big thing is to go down to Wal-Mart on Sunday afternoons," headmaster Stevens said.
But the basketball program is high-powered. Aside from the high school varsity, there is a prep team for players who need an extra year before moving on to college. Most are Division I prospects.
The prep team coach, Chris Chaney, said he wanted the high school team in the hands of "someone we could trust to do things right. When Terry called, it was a surprise, but a wonderful surprise."
Truax has no interest in moving back up the ladder.
"I know my role. I know where I fit," he said.
"He wants to continue coaching. This is an opportunity to continue," Vetter said. "Frankly, I think Terry should be sought after by college coaches and programs because the trend now is to have an experienced coach as an assistant. A coach with his knowledge and experience should be sitting somewhere on a college bench."
But the question is, would he want to be there?