In squeeze, Truax tough to embrace

Ken Rosenthal

August 28, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Wanted: Men's basketball coach at quality state university. Modest salary. Rising athletic program. Back-to-back NCAA tournament bids.

Seems that's the only job Terry Truax hasn't applied for this summer. It's the one he already has at Towson State.

Truax, 46, is underpaid even after a raise that recently put his salary above $50,000. But by repeatedly citing money as his reason for seeking other work, he risks alienating the Towson faculty, coaches and staff.

It's difficult getting upset with Truax, a nice guy who shows refreshing candor by openly discussing a legitimate concern. Problem is, as state universities like Towson battle the recession, his salary complaints come at the wrong time.

Not that Towson president Hoke L. Smith isn't sympathetic. He boosted Truax's salary after the Tigers won their second straight East Coast Conference title last spring, and he continues to encourage him in his quest for other jobs.

Truax didn't succeed with recent coaching applications to Old Dominion, Virginia Tech and South Carolina, but now he's the leading candidate to be the first Southwest Conference director of basketball operations, a position that reportedly would pay between $75,000 and $100,000.

The SWC is expected to make its decision shortly, leaving Towson six weeks to find a new coach before practice begins. Truax says he already has recommended top assistant Jim Meil as his replacement. That would assure a smooth transition, but it wouldn't address Truax's frustrations of the past eight years.

Salary is but one issue. The ECC lost its automatic bid to the 1992 NCAA tournament due to changing membership. Thus, the Tigers could go 24-3 next season and get shut out -- just when Truax believes they might finally be capable of escaping a bottom seed and scoring a first-round upset, a la Richmond.

Of course, Towson's failure to resolve its conference predicament is a saga unto itself. Truax, however, maintains he would pursue the SWC job even if Towson still could earn the automatic bid. He says he eventually wants to run a conference.

Then again, he wouldn't mind a high-profile coaching job either. Two years ago Truax applied for the vacant Maryland job. His old Maryland teammate Gary Williams got it, and reportedly earns a $125,000 base salary. Including his summer camp, shoe contract and radio show, his total income is approximately $400,000.

The extent of Truax's outside income is $2,500 from a summer camp. He doesn't even have a courtesy car; the dealer reclaimed it two years ago. Yet, he works 15-hour days just like Williams, seven months a year, without a break. Summer brings other chores, and camp.

"People sometimes think that every coaching job pays a lot of money," Williams says. "That's not true. Some jobs pay well. But obviously they don't all pay the same."

Meanwhile, Truax has two grown sons and a 3-year-old daughter Anne. His wife Pam wants to quit her job as a flight attendant to be home with the baby, but Truax says she must continue to work. He's surely the lowest-paid coach with back-to-back NCAA appearances. And he doesn't mind letting you know.

"It almost sounds like you're ungrateful," Truax admits. "But if you look at the [college basketball] power ratings and see where Towson is rated, I think you'd see I was not compensated proportionately.

"I don't think I'm out of line. I don't think I'm being demanding or unreasonable. Someone pointed out to Dr. Smith who has been the leading fund-raiser at Towson State the last two years: The basketball program."

It's a good point, but Truax actually was lucky to secure his most recent raise, which made his salary more competitive within the ECC. As state employees, Towson faculty and staff did not receive pay or cost-of-living increases at the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

Smith says Truax has not sparked any internal conflict with his complaints, explaining, "It's an illustration of where our salary levels are. That can cause a morale problem." But you wonder about the strain of all this, on the university, the athletic department, even the players.

Fear not for that last group -- "Whatever happens happens," senior forward Chuck Lightening says. "We know what we have to do next year." Indeed, the players might be just as happy playing for Meil. Towson is 56-34 since he became Truax's top assistant and recruiter three years ago.

To his credit, Truax puts his players first, even insisting that their biographies precede his in the media guide. Some drop out, transfer or flunk, but the last 23 seniors to complete their eligibility have graduated. Truax gets personally involved, attending weekly study halls on Tuesday nights.

The program continues to blossom, but as Smith says, "Each one of us makes tradeoffs. The tradeoff for a coach at Towson is that you don't have the opportunity for a big salary, but you also don't have the same type of risk. It's not the pressure cooker you get into at some schools."

Indeed, Towson stuck with Truax after he went 25-60 his first three years. He has since improved his overall record to 109-126, including spirited losses to Oklahoma and Ohio State in the NCAAs. "I'm not the type of person who gets comfortable," he insists. "I want to keep moving. I want to make things happen."

So, he keeps hailing taxi after taxi, trying to get out of town. Rest assured, it will be a relief when it finally happens -- not just for Terry Truax, but for Towson State as well.

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