One-of-a-kind coach left indelible mark
On one of those blustery predawn mornings at St. Bonaventure, a student manager named Mark Murphy had unlocked the gymnasium doors and let the Temple Owls into the Reilly Center for practice. The campus paper had gone to bed now, and I had been walking out the downstairs doors, only to hear a voice beginning to boom on the floor of the gymnasium.
Soon, the basketballs were sitting on the steel racks and the Temple players were surrounding John Chaney in a semicircle. This was a closed classroom -- nobody but his team invited. But I found a spot behind some chair-back seats in the stands, lay on my stomach and watched through a space between the rows.
He talked about life and living, about education and opportunities, insisting to his kids that they were forever one bounce from the curb. Looking back, one of the best college lectures I ever heard as undergraduate would come that day out of the visiting professor at Temple University, John Chaney.
The balls never left the rack that day, and I never did make it to my 8:30 a.m. class.
This was before Chaney threatened to rough up John Calipari at UMass, before he lost his mind with his self-described "goon" against St. Joseph's a year ago, before one of college basketball's most inspired minds had become one of its most irrational acts.
This is the Chaney that I'll want to remember, a Hall of Fame coach out of a generation when most Southern blacks couldn't get basketball scholarships to major universities. He would go to Bethune-Cookman on a scholarship, and coach Division II ball at predominantly black Cheyney State, before getting his Division I break at age 50 at Temple in 1982. All of that history -- all of that struggle -- made Chaney a dying breed in coaching: an original thinker, an original doer, in a profession where they pump these coaches out on the assembly line of sameness these days.
Chaney retired Monday, 74 years old and tired at Temple. It was time. Truth be told, it was a little past time. He beat up his legacy pretty good in the past few years, but he didn't obliterate it. He will stand the test of time, if for no other reason than Chaney always had something to say. He always had a point of view. Good luck finding that anymore. Good luck trying to get these coaches to take a stand on anything besides their lousy seed in the tournament, and the substandard luxury car the boosters gave their wives as a perk.
Maybe you weren't always going to agree with Chaney, but you had to admire that he didn't whisper it in the corners. He stood in the middle of the room and shouted it out at the top of his lungs. John Chaney had an agenda, and that's dying in the business now.
John Chaney had something to say. Every year, the coaches would get together at their convention at the Final Four and there would be a meeting of the 300 head coaches. He was always standing up, ranting and raving on some issue. Sometimes, they would lose track of where he was going, what he was trying to change, but they always listened. He was always making a case. Once, it was Prop 48. And then scholarship reductions. Mostly, Chaney was trying to be an advocate for the kid who had come up like he did.
Too many others in this business talked among themselves about shoe deals and annuities and country club memberships. But Chaney had come out of the belly of the beast and, well, you were going to hear all about it.
No, John Chaney wasn't perfect. He sure wasn't a saint. His graduation rates haven't been the best. Of course, when Tark wasn't graduating guys, they said he was using them. When Chaney didn't, he had been giving them an opportunity. It was an unfair double standard. The incident with St. Joseph's, when a player he sent into the game broke John Bryant's arm, had stained Chaney a year ago -- and it probably should have been the end for him.
Temple let him go out with one more year, a generous move by his bosses. After the Owls' NIT, the coach leaves for good. When John Chaney walks out of the room, college basketball loses a lot of voice, a lot of heart, a lot of character.
Mostly, it loses an original.
And where do we find those anymore?
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.
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