Philadelphia… You didn’t have to like John Chaney to respect him. And you didn’t have to agree with him to understand the impact this man had on college basketball, Temple University and the countless lives he touched.
When Temple president Peter Liacoras resigned in 1982 and asked Chaney to lead the Owls, many in Philadelphia thought this was another example of the controversy that Liacoras had missed the boat. It’s the same president who promised a Sugar Bowl for 1985, and the same basketball program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament since 1958.
But Liacoras was right this time, bringing an innocent icon to Cheney that energized the basketball team, the region’s largest university and half the city. Chaney channeled all the discrimination he encountered, both inside and outside of basketball, and instilled in us a mindset of peace that was as simple as it was constructive.
John Chaney compiled a record of 516-253 (.671) in 24 seasons at Temple (1982-2006) and played in 17 NCAA Tournaments. Ronald K. Modra/Getty Images
The easy part came on the field: training for sunrise, mandatory ball maintenance, mystery match zone and stone alignment. The best players played every possible minute, regardless of the score, unless there was a second foul before halftime. Chaney would lose to Wilt Chamberlain by two personalities, although his contemporary from Philadelphia has never lost an NBA game.
Outside the courtroom, Cheney challenged anything that went against his strict sense of justice. If Proposal 48 costs one of its players a selection season, it will intentionally fill in that player’s class as if that year did not exist. If John Calipari beat him with a player Temple found unacceptable, Chaney didn’t care who saw him threaten the young coach. On the rare occasions when a local rival got his number, Chaney could send what he called a drummer.
Nevertheless, kindness would have overshadowed any moment of concealment. Cheney’s heart, unlike the poorly maintained ties in her personal collection in Imelda Marcos’ size, was always in the right place. Cheney cared about opportunities, especially those denied him, which is why he was so determined to help the young men – almost all of them young black men – under his care.
If you told me about John Chaney and the Owls, homemade punk wisdom and generational clichés would be part of the deal. The same goes for his stares at officials – his etiquette – and his reluctance to speak to the media after games in the NCAA tournament until all of his players have agreed to what he considers invasive drug testing.
Joseph Labolito/The conductor
Another welcome secret of the Cheney years, at least for this journalist, was the incredible predictability of his teams. For a young writer in a hurry, it was magical. Sometimes the Owls have gone an entire season without losing to a lesser opponent. They could (and often did!) write the story in advance. It was also easy to find an unsuspecting team or NCAA-friendly opponent that would fall victim to Cheney’s unknown methods.
Usually, it took an overwhelming talent to destroy owls. Temple’s five appearances under Cheney’s direction ended against Duke (twice), Fab Five Michigan, North Carolina and Michigan State. Only Seton Hall (Ty Shine, anyone?) managed a true NCAA victory against Temple’s top team.
After a transitional season, Chaney led the Owls to the NCAA tournament for 17 of the next 18 years. He missed only once in this period, in 1989. By the way, the wisest of the eccentrics just celebrated his 89th birthday. Birthday, eight days before he died.
Then, like many others, he stated that age is just a number. Rest assured, John Cheney won the other 88.