Louisiana Tech coach Matt Terry holds faith, family close as wife begins cancer fight
Down to his roots, Matt Terry is as humble as they come. A native of Moulton, a quaint, northwest Alabama town of about 3,500 people, the 51-year-old Terry has always considered himself one of the fortunate ones, so blessed that he actually gets to coach golf for a living. From making $250 per month as a junior-college assistant to now six seasons into the job as head men’s coach at Louisiana Tech, Terry remains unchanged in his career assessment.
“I don’t think too highly of myself,” Terry admits. “I’m lucky enough to drive a van for a group of guys, and I get to wear some free gear.”
In fact, when it came to his profession, Terry would sometimes joke with fellow coaches, “We’re not curing cancer; we’re just coaching golf.”
Suddenly, Terry finds himself faced with both.
Terry was recruiting in Miami, Florida, two weeks ago when he received a phone call from his wife of 26 years. Dixie Terry was supposed to join her husband on the trip so they could celebrate their birthdays and anniversary – Jan. 5, as it turns out, has thrice the importance. But Dixie stayed back, worried that she had the flu, and instead saw a doctor. Her bloodwork raised some concerns, and she was referred to a hospital in West Monroe, Louisiana, about 30 miles east of the Terrys’ home in Ruston, for further testing.
Matt, after scrambling to re-book his flight and driving four-plus hours from New Orleans, met his wife at the hospital around 3 a.m. that next morning.
“I was praying it was just an infection,” Matt said, “but I had a gut feeling it was something bad.”
That fear has since materialized: Dixie, also a mother of three, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
While it can progress rapidly without treatment, A.L.L. also has a relatively high cure rate if fought with the same aggressiveness. As a college golf coach who built both programs at Troy into consistent regional presences in the mid-2010s, Matt recognizes the makeup of successful teams. So, when he and Dixie first arrived at Baylor Scott & White T. Boone Pickens Cancer Hospital in Dallas last Thursday, Matt knew immediately Dixie had the right teammates around her as she began the battle of her life.
If the Bentley and two Rolls-Royces in the valet line at the hospital didn’t give it away, it was the doctor who told Dixie, confidently, “We’re going to put you in remission, and then we’re going to cure you.”
Dixie had her fourth round of chemotherapy on Monday morning. The gameplan calls for 28 days of inpatient treatment, which Matt, metaphorically speaking, compared to spraying herbicide on a yard and then regrowing the grass. About half of those days will include double doses of chemo, a whole new meaning to two-a-days. After the four weeks are over, Dixie can go home for two weeks before returning to Dallas for follow-ups.
Now, though, it’s time to fight like hell.
As Matt told Dixie last Sunday night before she began chemo, she’s built for this.
“Dixie’s the toughest individual I know, period,” Matt said. “She’s ready for this fight.”
DIXIE TERRY WAS A THREE-SPORT athlete in junior college before going on to star in softball and volleyball at the University of North Alabama. Matt recalls seeing Dixie’s name, then Dixie McCreless, in the newspaper on many occasions, but they didn’t meet until the summer after Dixie graduated college. Matt had recently flunked out of the University of Alabama and was visiting a friend, who played football at UNA, when he first saw Dixie walking down the stairs at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. That night, the two talked for hours at Cheers, a campus bar.
“We knew within a week that we were going to get married,” says Matt, who two years later proposed on a mutual friend’s sports radio show. Perfect for two athletes turned coaches.
A few years after they were married, Dixie retired to become a stay-at-home mom. But her coaching instincts remained. Matt has no problem giving his wife most of the credit for raising both tough and caring kids – daughters Mya, now 22, and Alyssa, 19; and son Sawyer, 12. When Matt was away during the college golf season or recruiting, it was Dixie shuttling the kids to practice or tournaments of their own.
But it’s not just her own kids. Dixie also relishes her other role, as team mom.
“My players,” Matt says, “they’re hurting because they’re close with her. Her heart’s so big. She loves on them. Anything they need, she’s there.”
Before the Terrys embarked on the four-hour journey to Dallas last week, Matt carved out 15 minutes to meet with his team at their home course, Squire Creek Country Club. With qualifying for the Bulldogs’ Feb. 5-6 spring opener in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, just days from beginning, Matt delivered the bad news.
“I was honest with them,” Matt said. “I told them I didn’t know when I’d be with them again.”
With no paid assistant on staff, Louisiana Tech will take a coach-by-committee approach in Matt’s absence. Traveling with the team to events will be Kyle Buffolino, the school’s assistant athletics director for compliance services and the 2020 club champion at Squire Creek. Volunteer assistants – APGA pro Ryan Alford and Ryder Cupper Sam Burns – will help when their schedules permit. Squire Creek’s head pro, Robert Smith, and director of instruction, Brad Pullin, will also keep an eye on things. Graduate student James Swash was handed the keys within the squad, and he’s already responded by leading qualifying through two rounds.
“I’m fortunate that that’s who we are at Louisiana Tech,” Matt said. “People step up.”
They aren’t the only ones.
EAST TENNESSE STATE’S JAKE AMOS is one of the top young coaches in the country. When he began as an assistant at his alma mater, Augusta State, in 2011, Matt Terry was among the first to welcome Amos to the fraternity and offer guidance.
“He became a great friend and mentor, he has no ego and is so humble and passionate about golf and his profession,” Amos said. “He’s always quick to pick up the phone and call you when things aren’t going well. You get a lot of texts when things are going well, but Matt’s the type of guy who calls you and texts you when they’re not.”
So, when Amos first heard about Dixie’s cancer diagnosis, and knowing Matt would be reluctant to ask his peers for help, Amos took it upon himself to create a GoFundMe fundraiser for the Terry family. The initial goal was $5,000. Some food and gas money, he figured.
By Monday night, Amos had received over $37,000 in donations.
“Unbelievable, man,” Matt says, almost speechless, as he scrolls through the list of contributors. He remembers when he took his first head coaching job at Shelton State Community College in 1999; his salary was $25,000, “and I thought I was rich,” he laughs. A few years later, when he signed on to lead both the men’s and women’s teams at Troy, he got a pay bump … to $35,000.
It’s never been about the money, but in this case?
“My pride is in my pocket,” Matt says. “We’re here 28 days, and I don’t know what’s ahead for us. I don’t know what expenses we’re going to have. This is God trying to say, ‘You’re going to need this, dude.’”
Fellow coaches have made up a sizable chunk of the donations. Georgia’s Chris Haack, Baylor’s Mike McGraw, Texas Tech’s Greg Sands, LSU’s Chuck Winstead, Tennessee’s Brennan Webb, Stanford’s Conrad Ray and Texas A&M’s Brian Kortan are among those who have given $500. Mark Anthony, a huge supporter of college golf, is the top donor at $1,500. And even pros such as Chase Koepka and Scott Harrington have chipped in with hundreds of dollars.
Equally, if not more meaningful have been those who have picked up the phone, whether to uplift the Terrys in prayer or simply to talk. Close coaching buddies such as Nichols State’s James Schilling, North Texas’ Brad Stracke and South Florida’s Steve Bradley have reached out. Haack called just hours after the CFP National Championship, won by Georgia, and Haack’s wife offered to fly from Athens to Dallas just to sit with Dixie.
Florida State’s Trey Jones perhaps provided the most impactful words of encouragement. To paraphrase, Matt said Jones told him, “You’ve done all this for this long to build you up for this moment to be able to handle this.”
If such conversations have taught Matt anything, it’s that he and Dixie won’t be going at this alone.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
– Isaiah 41:10
IT’S IN HIS D.N.A. as a golf coach, Matt admits, to want to have control, to be able to fix the ailments that affect those close to him. In his day to day, it’s usually poor course management or inconsistent putting strokes. The scariest part about Dixie’s cancer, he says, is that it’s rendered him useless in that sense.
“It’s the most helpless feeling,” he explains, “when you can’t help your wife, and all you can do is just be there.”
But the Terry family has experienced the wickedness of cancer before. Matt’s mother died of lymphoma 14 years ago, and Matt still recalls hearing his dad cry, a rarity, as he fielded a call during a rain delay at a women’s tournament in College Station, Texas, before rushing to Houston to be with his mom.
That moment, like so many in Matt’s life, have bolstered his faith. He’s currently reading a book that talks about God’s plan, and how it is exact.
“But we often go through life thinking it’s the wrong time and wrong place,” Matt adds. “I’m not prepared for this moment had I not gone through that with my mother.”
This time, there is a palpable sense of calmness that surrounds Matt, Dixie and their family.
It’s been five days and the television in Dixie’s hospital room has yet to be turned on. Instead, the Terrys, including their three kids, pass the time playing countless games of Hangman. They go through old photos, and they take plenty of new ones. They also talk and laugh a lot.
In quieter moments, they read the Bible, and they pray.
For her team of doctors and nurses.
For God’s will to be done.
“This is another one of God’s blessings to bring us closer, my family closer, my friends closer,” Matt says. “I told my wife, this is going to be our opportunity to talk to nurses and doctors about our faith, and where God is in our lives, and where God should be in everyone’s lives. I don’t mind saying it. I’m 51 years old. I’m at the tail end of my career. I’m not a young man anymore. And these young coaches need to understand: Keep your faith and your family really close as you start out, and you get married, and you start having kids. You better stay really close to that, to your wife, to your children. You can still do a great job, you can still be a championship coach, and focus on your family.”
Matt Terry might downplay his consequence as a golf coach. But when it comes to being a husband and father, there’s nothing more important.
Especially right now.