Terry Truax, the coach who led the Towson men's basketball team to its only NCAA tournament appearances in 1990 and 1991, died Monday night at Fairfax (Va.) Hospital after suffering a stroke. A resident of Chantilly, Va., Truax was 70.
Towson's coach from 1983 through 1997, he guided the team through its formative years in Division I, building a legacy as a reputable coach who cared as much about his players' grades as their scoring averages.
"If not for that man, I wouldn't be here today," said Chuck Lightening, who owns an IT staffing company in Columbia. A star on Towson's three straight conference championship teams (1990-1992), Lightening said he arrived on campus as "a knucklehead with every reason to screw up. But while he [Truax] was hard on me, he was someone whom you didn't want to disappoint.
"I can still see him standing on the sidelines at practice with his shirt tucked into those pink shorts, arms folded and shouting at me about my defense. He'd stand on his tippytoes and yell, 'Lightening, you couldn't guard the door with a cannon!'
"But you know what? He stuck by me and he put our team on the map."
In Truax's 14 years, Towson won 202 games and lost 203. Only his predecessor, Vince Angotti, had more victories (231) at the school. On Tuesday, Angotti called Truax "an excellent coach who took Towson to 'The Big Dance,' which no one else has been able to do."
In 1990, the Tigers met No.1 Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA tournament and lost, 77-68. A year later, they fell, 97-86 in the tourney opener to No. 5 Ohio State.
His teams scored signature victories over St. John's, Louisville and West Virginia. Four times named conference coach of the year (twice each in the East Coast and Big South), Truax was inducted into Towson's Athletics Hall of Fame in 2004.
"Terry had an analytical mind, a wealth of basketball knowledge and an even-keeled personality," said Jim Meil, his assistant coach all 14 years. "He brought in a good stable of local players, but he also broadened our recruiting base a bit."
Truax's first recruit, Bill Leonard, hailed from Pittsburgh. A two-year team captain, Leonard recalled the coach as "a disciplinarian who was always there for you in the end. I still have hand-written letters he'd send during summer break, stuff like 'Hey, you missed a 3.5 grade-point average because of one class,' and 'Make sure you prepare for life after basketball.'
"He taught me so many lessons, on and off the court that I use to this day," said Leonard, president and CEO of a health care company in Potomac. "The Tiger family has lost someone who'll always have a place in our hearts."
Born in Hancock (Washington County), Truax attended Maryland and played alongside former Terps' coach Gary Williams. He then served as assistant coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and a string of colleges — North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and Mississippi State — before signing on at Towson.
After being fired by Towson following a 9-19 season in 1997, Truax coached a myriad of teams on different levels, from the Baltimore BayRunners of the International Basketball League to Hagerstown Community College to the boys and girls teams at Yeshivat Rambam, a Jewish school in Baltimore. He also coached teams in China and South Korea.
He patterned his Towson teams after one of the great programs of his era.
"Dad was proud that he ran his team with integrity and that it had a good graduation rate [95 percent]," said Scott Truax, who was at his father's bedside when he died. "He modeled his program after that of Dean Smith, at North Carolina, and he emulated Smith right down to the grooming of his players on the road — coats and ties, with no facial hair or earrings."
Smith died Feb. 7. Another of Truax's mentors, Bobby Boyd of Mississippi State, passed away Jan. 14.
"They've got a heckuva coaching staff in heaven," Scott Truax said.
Besides Scott Truax, of Asheville, N.C., Truax is survived by another son, Brad Truax, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a daughter, Anne Truax, of Baltimore. His wife of 34 years, the former Pamela Miller, died in 2012.