From the cobblestone streets of center city, the best college basketball in America is played inside a 10-mile radius in the Philadelphia Big 5. Big 5 schools represent some of the oldest and most successful men’s basketball programs in the nation. Four of the five teams—Temple (5th), Villanova (19th), Penn (22nd), and Saint Joseph’s (47th)—are in the top 50 for all-time Division I basketball victories (La Salle is not in the top 50 for wins, but won the NCAA Tournament in 1954). Among the Mount Rushmore of the Philadelphia Big 5 stands the legendary John Chaney. The great John Chaney, who passed away this year, was best known for his successful coaching tenure in 25 years with Temple in North Philadelphia. From the good, the bad, and the ugly…here is John Chaney’s life story.
John Chaney was born on January 21, 1932, in Jacksonville, FL but later grew up in Philadelphia. Chaney was a graduate of Ben Franklin High School on North Broad Street of Philly. After graduating from HBCU Bethune-Cookman University in 1955, Chaney went back up North to play in the Eastern Professional Basketball League for 12 years. He competed for the Sunbury Mercuries and then the Williamsport Billies. John Chaney started his head coaching career in 1963, when he coached William L. Sayre Junior HS for a short time, then moving onto the historical Simon Gratz High School from 1966-1972, both schools being in Philadelphia. John Chaney got his first collegiate gig when he coached for HBCUs Cheyney State from 1972-1982 in suburban Philly. In 1978, Chaney’s Cheyney State Wolves won the 1978 NCAA Division II Basketball Tournament. Cheyney State also finished in the Top 3 of the tournament five different times during Chaney’s tenure. John Chaney was already 50 years old when he accepted the head coaching job for Temple in 1982. He started his first year at Temple with a 14-15 record but later finished every remaining season with a winning record and an NIT or NCAA Tourney bid through 2006 when he retired at age 74. In total, Chaney’s 741 wins ranks 22nd in Div I men’s basketball history (min. 10 seasons in D-1), 17 NCAA Tournament appearances (5 Elite Eights), and a 2001 inductee into Naismith Memorial Basketball HOF. John Chaney died after a short, unspecified illness at the age of 89.
The Good: For many years, College Basketball was ruled by teams in the West and South. College Basketball in the Northeast was lackluster as many top recruits from the big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and Baltimore went elsewhere to play college basketball. Elgin Baylor (D.C.–>SeattleU), Wilt Chamberlain (Philly–>UKansas), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NYC–>UCLA) were big examples of this. At the start of the 1980s and into the 1990s, Northeastern teams started to dominate, with recruiting, followed by success. John Chaney held his own representing the city of Philadelphia, along with other local coaching greats such as Rollie Massimino (Villanova 1973-1992), Speedy Morris (La Salle 1986-2001), Fran Dunphy (Penn 1989-2006), and Phil Martelli (St. Joseph’s 1995-2019). Whenever John Chaney entered high school gyms to scout players, entire crowds would be more interested in Chaney’s presence than the actual game. After John Chaney’s first year at Temple, the Owls either finished with the best record or won the Atlantic-10 bracket for five straight years from 1984-88. In 1987, Temple started unranked but had a breakout season to enter the NCAA Tournament as a #2-seed but was upset by #10-seed LSU in the Second Round. In 1988, Temple was even better and entered the Big Dance as #1 in the entire country. Temple made it all the way to the Elite Eight but fell to #2-seed Duke in a disappointing loss. Although Temple had an underwhelming regular season, in 1991, they made the tourney as a #10-seed and won against #7-seed Purdue, #15-seed Richmond, and #3-seed Oklahoma State. Temple even almost made it to the Final Four as they lost to #1-seed North Carolina 72-75 in the Elite Eight. In the next two years, Temple lost to the Michigan “Fab Five” in back-to-back years during the tournament (First Round in 1992, Elight Eight in 1993). Temple made another trip to the Elite Eight in 1999, but one of John Chaney’s best coaching jobs came in 2001. Temple started the 2001 season at 4-7, but John Chaney rallied his team at the right time for a shot at redemption after being heartbroken in the 2000 Second Round. That was when Temple being the #2-seed, lost to #10-seed Seton Hall. Temple entered that 2001 March Madness with 7-straight wins, including an Atlantic-10 Tournament victory for Chaney’s 6th A-10 Title. Despite having a hot finish, Temple only got the #11-seed but then landed victories over #6-seed Texas, #3-seed Flordia, and #7-seed Penn State before falling to #1-seed Michigan State in the Elite Eight. That would be John Chaney’s 17th and final NCAA Tournament appearance, but he made the NIT Tournament for all of his remaining 5 years. His success speaks loudly, but Chaney was also well known for his early-morning practices, match-up zone defense, and tough non-conference scheduling. Chaney, whose deep, dark eyes seemed fitting for a school whose mascot is the Owl, was very intense on the sidelines. He had a loud, raspy voice, heard in the upper decks of arenas. He wore fashionable coaching attire that was in shambles after most games. John Chaney won the AP Coach of the Year in 1988 and got to develop NBA first-rounders such as Terence Stansbury (1984), Tim Perry (1988), Mark Macon (1991), Duane Causwell (1991), Eddie Jones (1994), Aaron McKie (1994), and Mardy Collins (2006). John Chaney made a profound impact on every player who entered McGonigle Hall or the Liacouras Center. His players became better men and brothers because of Chaney’s leadership by example.
The Bad: John Chaney had an accomplished coaching career, but what separated him from being great was a hump that he could not get over. John Chaney was 0-5 in the Elite Eight, squandering 5 opportunities to make it to the Final Four. Temple was also cursed with a mediocre #7-seed in the tourney for 4 out of 6 years from 1993 to 1998. Towards the last few years of John Chaney’s career, Temple lost its superiority over crosstown rival St. Joesph’s when Temple posted a measly 3-13 record against the Hawks from 2001 through 2006.
The Ugly: Although John Chaney had a magnetic personality, he lost his cool on many occasions. In 1984, Chaney grabbed George Washington’s head coach by the shoulders at halftime during a game. In 1990, John Chaney had to be held back in an encounter with UMass head coach John Calipari during an anxious moment in triple-overtime at The Cage in Amherst, MA. Again in 1994, Chaney had an intense encounter with Calipari in the middle of a press conference. That was just moments after #13 UMass hosted and defeated #8 Temple, and Calipari complained at the referees for most of the game. This time John Chaney made serious threats towards John Calipari when Chaney said: “When I see you, I’m gonna kick your ass!” As security started to restrain Chaney in the press room, he repeatedly yelled, “I’ll kill you!”. Out of anger, Chaney admitted telling his players to “Knock your fucking kids in the mouth.” John Chaney’s final slip-up was in 2005 when he sent backup forward Nehemiah Ingram into the game against St. Joseph’s to commit hard fouls in response to Chaney’s interpretation of bad calls by the referees. John Bryant of St. Joseph’s suffered a fractured arm because of the intentional foul. After the game, Chaney confessed to “sending a message” and said, “I’m going to send in what we used to do years ago, send in the goons.” Temple University suspended John Chaney for the remainder of the 2005-06 regular season because of the intentional foul and Chaney self-extended the suspension for the A-10 Tournament. On March 13, 2006, John Chaney officially announced his retirement leaving on a sour finish.
Although John Chaney’s life was filled with many hills and valleys, the good outweighed the bad. Heaven’s basketball team just got better.