PHILADELPHIA — You didn’t have to like John Chaney to respect him. And you didn’t have to agree with him to understand the man’s impact on college basketball, Temple University and the countless lives he touched.
When Temple president Peter Liacouras went outside the box and tapped Chaney to lead the Owls in 1982, many in Philadelphia thought it was another example of the controversial Liacouras missing the mark. This was the same president who had promised a Sugar Bowl by 1985, and the same basketball program which hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1958.
But Liacouras was right this time, and in Chaney he landed an unapologetic icon who lifted the basketball team, the region’s largest institution of higher learning and half a city. Chaney channeled all the discrimination he had faced, in basketball and beyond, and instilled an “us against the world” mentality that was equal parts simplicity and instigation.
The simple part came on the court: predawn practices, mandatory care of the ball, an inscrutable matchup zone and etched-in-stone lineups. The best players played every possible minute, regardless of score, unless a second foul came before halftime. Chaney would have benched Wilt Chamberlain with two personals, even though his Philadelphia contemporary never once fouled out of an NBA game.
Away from the court, Chaney challenged anything and everything that contradicted his hard-edge sense of fairness. If Proposition 48 cost one of his players a season of eligibility, he would intentionally list the player’s class as if the year didn’t exist. If John Calipari beat him with a player deemed inadmissible to Temple, Chaney didn’t care who saw him threaten the younger coach. In the rare times a local rival got his number, Chaney might send in what he called a “goon.”
Yet the good would outshine all of the “cover-your-eyes” moments. Chaney’s heart, unlike the unkempt ties from his Imelda Marcos-sized personal collection, was always in the right place. Chaney was all about opportunities, mainly the ones he was denied and thus so determined to provide to the young men — nearly all young Black men — in his care.
If you covered John Chaney and the Owls, homespun wisdom and generational clichés were part of the deal. So were one-eyed-jack stares at officials — his label — and an unwillingness to address the media after NCAA tournament games until all his players had concluded what he felt was invasive drug testing.
Another welcome secret of the Chaney years, at least for this reporter, was the incredible predictability of his teams. For a young writer on deadline, this was magic. The Owls would sometimes go a whole season without losing to a lesser opponent. You could (and often did!) write the story ahead of time. It was also easy to spot the unsuspecting ranked team or favored NCAA opponent that would fall victim to the unfamiliar Chaney ways.
It typically took overwhelming talent to eliminate the Owls. Temple’s five Elite Eight appearances under Chaney ended at the hands of Duke (twice), Michigan’s Fab Five, North Carolina and Michigan State. Only Seton Hall (Ty Shine, anyone?) pulled a true NCAA upset of a better Temple team.
After one transition season, Chaney took the Owls to NCAA tournaments for 17 of the next 18 years. His only miss in that span came in 1989. Coincidentally, the wisest Owl of all had just celebrated his 89th birthday, eight days before his passing.
He said at the time, as many do, that “age is just a number.” Rest assured John Chaney conquered the other 88.