Final Four Focus provides coverage of the Final Four by standout students enrolled
in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
In its inaugural year of an agreement with the NCAA, the Curley Center provides students with the opportunity to work side-by-side with members of the media at the Final Four.
Matt Fortuna, from New York City, has worked for four years at The Daily Collegian, currently serving as arts editor after covering and editing sports for three years. His freelance work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The New York Times and the Detroit Free Press, among others. Previously, he’s held internship positions at the Altoona (Pa.) Mirror and with MLB.com in Pittsburgh. This summer, he will return to MLB.com as an associate reporter covering the Yankees.
Nate Mink has worked four years at The Daily Collegian, currently serving as a copy editor after providing football coverage the last two years. His freelance work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press and Baltimore Sun, among others. Previously, he’s held internship positions at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and the Philadelphia Daily News. This summer, he will work as an associate reporter with MLB.com in Philadelphia.
By Matt Fortuna
Special to NCAA.org
HOUSTON — The box-framed photo hangs against the blue-walled trophy case inside Truitt Middle School, black and white and just a bit ragged 57 years later.
Two players steady the one-sided wooden ladder inside the plastic shell, looking up at the man in the No. 3 jersey with the tall black socks and thigh-high shorts aiming scissors toward the tiny piece of nylon still hanging from the Butler Fieldhouse rim.
To the lower left stands a triangle display case bearing a folded American flag. Inscribed on the wooden frame below is a tribute for the man this 21-year-old building was named after.
IN LOVING MEMORY
CAPTAIN RONALD TRUITT
OCTOBER 6, 1935-MARCH 10, 1988
"For somebody who's been in education and worked with kids and really put their heart into it," said Gary Durrenberger, Truitt's nephew, "having a school named after you is probably the biggest honor you could ever have."
Cities don't name schools after just basketball players, though — even if Ronnie Truitt had five points and four rebounds in Milan's 32-30 Indiana state title win over Muncie Central that became the inspiration for the movie "Hoosiers" 32 years later.
Those basketball talents could only take the forward so far. Less than 1,000 miles south, in fact. It is here that Truitt earned a scholarship to play for Alden Pasche and eventually the legendary Guy V. Lewis at the University of Houston, where he met his wife JoAnn before moving on to the Army for two years after graduation and obtaining the rank of captain.
The teaching and coaching bugs bit, leading Truitt to Black Junior High School and then Cy-Fair High in 1967, where his second incarnation of "Hoosiers" took place. Truitt coached the Bobcats to the 1971 Texas state title in Austin, which five of his seniors arrived to three days after beginning a 145-mile dribble-thon from campus.
The gold basketball honoring Truitt as state coach of the year is on display at Truitt Middle School today, along with countless other memorabilia and items donated by his wife JoAnn.
Truitt's career in school administration began a year later. He served as a high school assistant principal and elementary principal before becoming the principal of Jersey Village High School, the last position he held before succumbing to cancer 23 years ago.
The only member of the 1954 Milan team not living today, Truitt went back to Indiana to watch a screening of "Hoosiers" before its release in 1986. His character, Everett Flatch, was the son of Shooter, Dennis Hopper's alcoholic character who served as an assistant coach for fictional Hickory High. That was not a portrayal of Truitt's real-life father.
Back in Houston, JoAnn and her three kids asked Truitt to see the film again, ordering a limousine to pick the family up.
The limo stopped at Cy-Fair on the way, where colleagues waited outside asking Truitt to get out of the car and come inside.
There, he was greeted with a surprise party and celebratory dinner in honor of the movie's release.
"We didn't let him know where he was going," JoAnn said. "He had tears."
Durrenberger would play pick-up with his cousins and Truitt outside Truitt's house, where he said the coach and family man would take it easy on him. Still, Truitt's lethal hook shot often proved too much to overcome.
And it would have come in handy now as his only grandson, a 13-year-old also named Ronnie, begins his development as a basketball player.
"He keeps saying all the time, 'I wish Grandpa was here. He could show me how to do all of this,' " JoAnn said.
Now, with the Final Four back here for the first time in 40 years, Truitt's family cannot help but wonder how he would have soaked this weekend in.
"He would have thought it was the best thing to ever happen to Houston," JoAnn said. "He loved the Astrodome and he would have thought Reliant Stadium would have been satisfying."
And of course there's the Butler factor — a tiny school from Indiana reaching the Promised Land, this time in Truitt's adopted hometown.
It all comes full-circle back to that middle school that bears his name, the one that hands out a "Ronnie Truitt Award" each year to the best student-athlete, the one that named its mascot the Indians after Truitt's Milan team before the name was changed to Timberwolves.
Back on the shelf inside that trophy case stands a yellowed piece of paper, creased on the edges but stiff for all to see the signatures adorning it: the school superintendent, the principal, the president, the secretary, the treasurer.
Milan High School is the bold header. May 21, 1954 is the date it was presented. The signature of Ronald Truitt, for whom that diploma was given to, stands out among the rest.
Fifty-seven years later, it lives on through 1,400 junior high students every day.
Matt Fortuna is a senior in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University