Former Temple Coach Chaney: Still An Owl, Always a Legend

Justin FinneranContributor IMarch 30, 2008

When John Chaney enters a room, the unconditioned individual is likely to freeze.

 A variety of emotions are experienced.  Most smile, knowing they are in for a show.   Some experience awe; others become overwhelmed with the self-serving interest of finding a safe spot in case the coach's notorious temper suddenly flares up and consumes everything in his vicinity.  Chaney was soaked from the rain, and not pleased at having to pay for parking at the school he helped put on the map through twenty-four years of service as an educator and basketball coach. 

In his frank opinion, there should have been preparations made to ease his visit.  Many in the room laughed at his comment, but they were soon to discover that the man was not joking.  He was serious, dead serious.

There is no greater advocate of preparation and discipline than John Chaney.  This is not just what he demands of himself, but also what he infuses in those under his expert tutelage.  These attributes were the hallmark of his teams, infused into his players by early morning practices and Chaney’s rigorous match-up zone defense.  It is why Chaney is one of the most successful men's basketball coaches in collegiate history, compiling 741 victories, numerous Coach of the Year awards, and handfuls of conference championships on both the Division I & II levels. 

It has been two years since Chaney stepped away from Temple's basketball program.  The Owls had declined from their heyday of being a regular seed in the NCAA Championship Tournament to playing in the NIT, and Chaney faced harsh criticism following the 2005 incident where he elected to "send in the goons" against St. Joseph’s and an opposing player ended up with a broken arm.  Many called for him to step down, but Chaney instead issued an apology and suspended himself for a game.  But in March 2006, following his teams 17-14 season, Chaney announced his retirement at a press conference.  “I have said all along that I would know when it would be time to step down and now is that time,” Chaney said, “Excuse me while I disappear”. 

But for a short while today, Chaney has returned to Temple.  He comes as a favor to a fellow educator and respected colleague.  He speaks to the assembled students about basketball and the importance of education.  He engages them, challenges them, and teaches them.  He makes them feel valued, and stresses how hard they must work to be great journalists.  He emphasizes the significance of grasping new technology in a time when newspapers are being replaced by digital devices.  More importantly, he offers one key bit of advice. 

“If this is not what you think you want to do, get the hell out!”

After talking for a while, Chaney then begins to field questions from the students.  Naturally, many of the questions concern the game he loves.  In Philadelphia, the name Chaney is synonymous with basketball.  He was the first black coach to compile over 700 wins on the collegiate level.  His endeavor began at Division II Cheyney State, a small college located in the Philadelphia suburbs.  At Cheyney, his record was an impressive 232-56, and his Wolves won the national title in 1978. 

Then, in 1982, Chaney became the men’s coach at Temple.  He had fifteen 20-win seasons with the Owls, and finished with a record of 516-252.  His Atlantic Ten Conference record was an impressive 327-108.  He led Temple to seventeen appearances in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the regional final five times. 

As a result of all he had accomplished, Chaney was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.  Then, on February 20th, 2008, Chaney was inducted into the Philadelphia Area Small College Coaches Association Hall of Fame for his work at Cheyney State. 

            Yet when he is asked to reflect on his greatest achievement in life, he does not mention basketball.  The finest moment of his life came in 1979 when he received the State of Pennsylvania Distinguished Faculty Award, given to the best teacher in the state of Pennsylvania.  As he speaks on the details, such as the $10,000 which came with award presented by Governor Thornburgh, his eyes swell a bit and he smiles humbly.  

At that moment John Chaney’s legacy is revealed as being something more than just coaching great basketball.  The familiar image of the loosened necktie and the face contorted with anger is contrasted against a John Chaney who is at peace.  The man is greater than any game; he is a true champion of education.

It is with this gift that he has done the most and given his best.  John Chaney has admittedly saved the lives of uneducated and impoverished kids, those who thought that they could get by in life on basketball alone.  He breathed a new life and hope into them in a way which would not be undone, and they trusted this man because he was once like them.  Chaney himself grew up impoverished, and was able to better himself by attending Bethune-Cookman College on a basketball scholarship.  Chaney graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1955, and went on to receive his Masters of Arts from Antioch College.  He is a fine example of what determination and hard work can accomplish regardless of the obstacles.

The class comes to its end, and Chaney steps back out into the streets.  Some among the students stay behind to thank their professor for reaching out Chaney on their behalf.  In the emptying room, the feeling of inspiration lingers for a bit. 

We excuse you John, but don’t you dare think that after all which you have done that you are meant to disappear.