Commentary

Chaney enjoys his 'do nothing' phase of life

Originally Published: September 16, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The hunt for the elusive Dickie, a 94-year-old golfer who plays 36 holes at Walnut Lane Golf Course every day, came up empty.

John Chaney drove the back nine searching for Dickie, sure he could coerce the nonagenarian into another round and convinced this was a golfer he could actually beat.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chaney
Drew Hallowell for ESPN.comJohn Chaney always finds time for his seafood fix.

But Dickie was nowhere to be found. Chaney was just about to take his sticks and start swinging solo when his cell phone rang.

"You do? You got crabs?" he said into the phone, his bug eyes widening. "They big ones? Are you sure they're big ones? I don't want no small ones. OK. OK. I'll be right over. Don't cook 'em now. I've got my own seasonings. I'm on my way."

Chaney shut the phone, ditched his clubs and cart in front of the clubhouse and, with a shout to his buddies to watch his stuff, hightailed it to his car.

"To hell with golf," he said, grinning impishly, "let's go get some crabs."

During his 24 years at Temple University, John Chaney always simmered on a low boil. Tie permanently askew, shirt sleeves rolled up, Chaney appeared pained by the game of basketball, seething at every miscue, flat-out offended by every turnover. His players, the ones who adored him with a mix of devotion, fear and a desperate desire to please, were berated and chided for even the smallest of offenses.

He was a man who simultaneously inspired with his passions and exasperated with his antics, more complex than the matchup zone defense he created and yet more simple than a layup.

Chaney spent a lifetime and a career fighting for what he believed was right, everyone else's beliefs be damned. He took kids no one else believed in and made them stars; he fearlessly and loudly fought social injustices on and off the basketball court and he never once backed down from a fight, even when he should have.

But fight and struggle were always the backbone of Chaney, the blocks used to build a Hall of Fame career. Two years ago when he ended his retirement press conference with the Frank Sinatra lyrics, "excuse me while I disappear," it seemed impossible to imagine Chaney's quietly slipping into a life of leisure and retirement.

And yet, as Temple prepares to begin its third season without him, you will not find a man more content in his golden years than John Chaney.

"I used to always say as a coach you were either on a time clock or a time bomb," Chaney said. "Your mind was always working. Something you didn't do; something you must do; some kid you didn't take care of. I never thought I'd get used to retirement this easily but there isn't anything I'd rather be doing right now than what I'm doing."

Life in the Slow Lane
Right now Chaney is doing whatever the hell he wants.

Most days he heads over to Walnut Lane, a public golf course smack in the middle of the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. It's your classic muni, with a bare bones clubhouse that dishes out hot dogs and chips and a course framed by worn cart paths.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chaney
Drew Hallowell for ESPN.comChaney has a new group of friends now that the golf course is his daily home.

Chaney, 76, would be a welcome member at any of the private country clubs in and around Philadelphia, but he doesn't want to join. He likes the guys at Walnut Lane, the retired men who, like him, have no artifice and who love to trade stories.

They play quarter pinochle or knock rummy when they're not golfing and trash talk when they're not doing anything else.

"They let me call them dirty names and they do the same to me," Chaney said, as he yelled at his buddy Paul, calling him obnoxious, to which Paul retorted, "you can't spell obnoxious." "They can stare at a leaf all day and find something new to talk about with that leaf. You got the guys who take their teeth out to eat their dinner."

Most of the guys didn't know Chaney before he retired. They knew who he was, certainly, but they didn't know him.

Now he is one of them. He brings them lunch nearly every day, dropping off an assortment of lunch meat from a deli or corn and vegetables. Sometimes he'll even share his beloved crabs.

"He never likes anybody to talk about how nice he is but he'll go spend $100 at a deli and drop it off for us," said Cy Caspar, one of Chaney's new friends. "We've all gained weight since he started playing here."

Chaney never played golf while he coached. He didn't want his players to see him laughing and having fun for fear they'd think they could be anything less than heart-attack serious around basketball.

But now he plays almost every day, teeing up the same seven holes at Walnut Lane.

Why seven? Because the course is bisected by the street -- 7 holes on one side, 11 on the other and Chaney likes the seven on the near side. They're a little shorter and tighter, better, he thinks, for learning to hit a ball straight. He also is better at the front seven and at his age argues, "you don't want to deal with failure when you know the big failure is coming."

If he wants to play more than seven, he'll go around again for 14.

He's not good, yet. Not good enough, anyway, for a man who has spent his entire life at the top of the athletic food chain, but Frank DiCicco, one of the old golfers hanging on the benches outside the clubhouse, is quick to tell you, "He's getting better, a lot better."

"Do you know how many clubs I've bought? Probably at least 50," Chaney said. "I took a driver back just yesterday. Told the guy it wasn't working and I needed a new one."

Even with the gray beard he grew -- "I'm trying to go incog-negro," he jokes, -- he never goes unrecognized, not with those big eyes and that raspy voice.

Golfers do double takes when they head to the clubhouse and spy Chaney on the cart or smile and say, "Hi, coach," when they find him on the course.

Temple students and graduates know coach haunts Walnut Lane and sometimes will poke their heads into the clubhouse looking for him.

"He'll play with them," said Bryn Doran, the course's general manager and a Temple grad. "First he always asks the graduates if they got a job, but he'll play with anybody."

Fast Track to Retirement

The doctors told him his daughter, Pamela, had a hole in her aorta, that her chance of survival was 50/50 and she needed surgery immediately.

Sitting in his office at midseason when he received the call, John Chaney was shell-shocked. He and his wife, Jeanne, had only recently faced her battle with cancer and now this?

Chaney found a specialist for Pamela in Fort Dix, N.J. and sped down to meet her. By the time he got there Pamela was sitting in bed, a smile spread across her face.

The doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her heart. Too afraid to trust such a drastic change in diagnosis, Chaney brought her back to Temple University hospital where doctors ran a gamut of tests and concluded that Pamela had a stress disorder, but no hole, nothing life-threatening.

Not long after, Chaney was back in the hospital, this time with his wife and what they thought was a painful flare up of diverticulitis. Another round of tests proved that diagnosis wrong as well. Jeanne had gallbladder disease. Surgery the next day alleviated her pain.

Still, Chaney was shaken by the health scares -- "that was three strikes, counting the cancer, and I didn't see a home run coming," he said -- and it drove him to fast-track the retirement he had been contemplating.

He called his lawyer and his accountant and had them work out a deal with Temple.

He knew it was the right time to retire -- he said he felt like he had been running in place -- but admits he was worried. Doing nothing would be a big change for a man who had to wait until he was 50 to break into Division I coaching, who won 741 games and established basketball at Temple, not by playing pansies but by playing the nation's best, often on their home courts.

But as he faced the critical and even frightening stop to life in the fast lane, Chaney recalled advice the late Al Maguire once gave him.

"He told me there are two letters that you should never, ever forget and two letters you've never had to be able to use before -- n-o," Chaney said. "No, I don't want to come to your event. No, I don't want to speak. No, I don't want to do an interview. No, no, no. I tell you what, I like no."

[+] EnlargeJohn Chaney
Drew Hallowell for ESPN.comChaney's pace has changed since stepping down from Temple in 2007.

Chaney is getting better at no. As he was sitting in his golf cart, trading insults with his buddy, his cell phone chirped again. This time it was a woman from a group that wants to market a teaching DVD about Chaney's matchup zone. The company is willing to pay a nice chunk of change for what it promises will be only a two-hour investment of his time.

He isn't buying it. His zone isn't that simple. It's a smorgasbord of zones created by Frank McGuire, Harry Litwack and Jack Kraft and not something he can jot down or explain in a couple of quick hours.

So those two letters are coming to mind.

"I don't want to do nothing I don't want to do, which is nothing," he said. "Do you know how good it is to do nothing? It's great. I can sit back and criticize the world and nobody can say anything because I'm an old man."

Don't let him fool you. He's still sharp as a tack and willing to fight.

This is, after all, John Chaney, the man who once threatened to kill John Calipari in a post-game news conference and then actually went after him; the man who remains unrepentant about having St. Joseph's John Bryant intentionally knocked to the ground in what became known as Goongate in Philadelphia (though he is sorry Bryant was injured).

Quiet isn't in his DNA. He's simply more selective about which windmills he'll tilt.

And so he will sit on his golf cart and bemoan the lack of African-American kids coming with the local high schools to Walnut Lane and dispel the long-held myth that Tiger Woods would shepherd a change in the color of the game.

"He can inspire but he cannot give kids the means to play," Chaney said. "You can't learn this game without teaching, practicing, equipment and tee fees. Money is required."

He is stumping for Barack Obama. He spoke formally at a rally in Philadelphia and informally to a parking attendant, reminding him, "You better pull that lever twice," before finding a spot for his car. If you want to lose Chaney to a 3-hour dissertation, just say the name "George W. Bush."

He may come up for breath, but it's not likely.

He also is going to bat for Walnut Lane. An independent group would like to cut the 18-hole course down to nine holes and use the rest of the land -- part of Fairmount Park -- for skateboarding parks, an amphitheater and restaurants.

Chaney was scheduled to appear before the city council to argue on behalf of the course.

"Having someone like him can really help us," Caspar said. "That's the thing no one ever understands about John because he likes to pretend he's ornery. He's not. He's a giver, not a taker and he loves life."

The Spice of Life

The car ride from Walnut Lane to Top of the Hill Market in nearby Chestnut Hill takes only about 15 minutes. Still, Chaney manages to cram in a riff on insurance companies, a scholarly explanation on why good crabs only come from warm water (they go too deep and get mud in their lungs when the water turns chilly), a rehash of his long ago beef with Joe Paterno over Prop 48 and a ranking of the best golfers in coaching (Tubby Smith, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim all earn nods).

After he pulls in -- the attendant waves him in despite the "lot full" sign -- he goes to the trunk of his BMW.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chaney
Drew Hallowell for ESPN.comChaney is completely comfortable performing his disappearing act.

"Don't you laugh, now," Chaney warns as he reaches into the trunk, pulling out a plastic bin labeled Coach's Crabs and a plastic bag.

Inside the bag is his seasoning -- a mix of Old Bay, celery seed and cayenne pepper (lots of it). Chaney carries the stuff in his car all the time, on the off chance that today will be the day Top of the Hill has crabs.

The staff has his home phone number, cell phone number and knows to call him whenever they're certain the crustaceans will meet Chaney's standards. Chaney likes his crabs to have big guns.

"He doesn't eat most of them; he just wants the claws," said Andrew Peszka, the store manager. "I call him every time."

Chaney first met Peszka more than 20 years ago, when Peszka's business consisted of an umbrella, a picnic table, a truck and an empty parking lot. Now he has the market, eat-in cafe, bakery and a regular in Chaney, who treats the market like his own kitchen.

After hand-picking his crabs -- live from the bucket -- Chaney passes them and his seasoning to the girl behind the counter, who cooks them for him.

While the crabs steam, Chaney scours the vegetables and not only explains how to best cook corn (peel the husks like a banana, pull out the hair, put the husks back around the corn, wrap the ear in a wet paper towel and microwave for 5 minutes), but also browbeats Peszka into cooking an ear for his guest.

By the time he gets back to the golf course, the high school kids are on the tees and Dickie is long gone. No problem. Chaney is working the old guys. He'll convince someone to play seven once the kids move on across the street.

Later he will take the bin full of crabs home. He'll pour a cold beer, crack the claws for himself and hand the rest over to his wife.

And for a little while, at least, you'll have to excuse John Chaney as he disappears.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

ALSO SEE