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John Chaney, legendary Temple University basketball coach, dies at 89

Chaney led Temple to five appearances in the NCAA Elite Eight, the last trip in 2001, the year Chaney was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

John Chaney died at age 89.
John Chaney died at age 89.Read moreFile photograph

John Chaney, the legendary Temple University basketball coach, the very face of the school on North Broad Street for a generation and an icon of his sport, died Friday at age 89 after a short illness.

Mr. Chaney had led Temple to five appearances in the NCAA Elite Eight, the last trip in 2001, the year he was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In addition to 17 trips to the NCAA Tournament with the Owls, Mr. Chaney won a Division II national title at Cheyney University. Funeral services were pending.

Known for his sometimes fiery temperament, his early morning practices, his unique matchup zone defense, his aversion to turnovers, and his fierce devotion to offering a hand to lift those who most needed a lift, Mr. Chaney retired in 2006 after winning 741 games between Cheyney and Temple.

“A man who lived his life the way he wanted, and will be remembered for his service,” said Simon Gratz High coach Lynard Stewart, who played for Mr. Chaney at Temple.

“He’s one of a kind,” said Bruiser Flint, now a Kentucky assistant coach. Flint first met Mr. Chaney as a 10-year-old at his basketball camp, and later went up against him coaching Massachusetts and Drexel. “There’s never going to be another John Chaney.”

A flat-out funny man. His news conferences always were can’t-miss affairs — not just the time Mr. Chaney stormed into a John Calipari news conference after a Temple-Massachusetts game, famously yelling at Calipari, “I’ll kill you.”

» FROM OUR ARCHIVES: The Gospel of John: Temple’s legendary coach at 80

His morning practices, usually from about dawn to 8 a.m., were part of the Chaney experience. The Owls would be working on something, proceeding as normal, when Mr. Chaney would say, “Hold up, hold up …” And then this man would take his players for a journey lasting many minutes, offering not just life lessons, but applying life back to basketball.

He liked his basketball plain. Simple passes. Being in the right spot, passing to the right man.

“He’s open for a reason,” he’d tell guards who passed to a big man who dropped the ball or missed an open shot.

“Guard him like a windshield wiper,” he’d tell a forward charged with a big defensive assignment during the NCAA Tournament, where a matchup with Temple was a dreaded ordeal for any opponent.

Off the court, Mr. Chaney made his greatest impact as a public face of opposition to NCAA initial-eligibility standards. Great Temple players such as Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, now the Owls coach, were ineligible to play as freshmen. Mr. Chaney didn’t just take them, he championed them.

Mr. Chaney himself had once been told to go to the woodshop, that academic classes weren’t for him at Ben Franklin High. His own basketball coach, Sam Browne, saw it differently. Mr. Chaney never forgot this man who believed in him. “My great white father,” he called Browne.

Yet no Big 5 schools recruited the Public League player of the year, which meant Mr. Chaney went to Bethune-Cookman. Racial quotas in the NBA sent this man to the Eastern League, the next best option, where Mr. Chaney was a star.

Dan Leibovitz, an assistant coach for Mr. Chaney, now associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, watched his boss up close and quickly came to believe he was in the presence of genius.

“People think of the complexity of the zone,” Leibovitz said. “But in basketball his genius was really simplicity. We were great because of the simple things, and they were non-negotiable, and they were the same from the first practice to the last day of the season.”

Everyone knew their roles, from stars to managers.

“His experience in the game, his wisdom in the game ... he really did have the ability to almost see things in slow motion, and see all 10 pieces on the floor,” Leibovitz said, remembering some days when the Owls would lose a game on the road, get off a flight. No film of the game to watch yet.

“We’d walk in the gym, put the players on the floor in street clothes and just re-create the situations,” Leibovitz said. “He would move the pieces. There were some in the game that could do that, but there aren’t many.”

His former assistant added, “I do believe his greatest mission was to try to change our players’ lives. They didn’t always understand what was in front of them, but he did. It was a daily fight, and I think it was part of a larger cause.”

» FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Dan Leibovitz carries on John Chaney’s legacy with a Twitter account in his honor

Fran Dunphy, who succeeded Mr. Chaney as Temple’s coach, talked to him last week for his birthday. Mr. Chaney had been in the hospital.

“I was hoping he was going to get home and be with us for a lot longer,” Dunphy said. “So the reality hit and it’s a tough situation, but I think about the life that he led and the people that he touched, and what an honor it was to know him and what an honor it was to succeed him.”

“It sounds crazy, and it sounds pollyanna-ish, but he’s one of those guys you thought, he’s just going to be around forever,” said Phil Martelli, a great rival of Mr. Chaney when Martelli coached St. Joseph’s. Martelli had faced Mr. Chaney’s teams at Cheyney when he played at Widener.

“There are a lot of healthy egos in basketball, but when you slice it down, there are few new things,” Martelli said. “The Princeton offense, and John Chaney’s zone defense, they were new. … The thing that got you, you’d think, ‘I’ve got this.’ You really had no idea of the answers, because you didn’t know the questions. You couldn’t even put together a scout team to try to simulate it.”

There were battles, famously. Goon-gate wasn’t pretty, Mr. Chaney looking to send a message during a St. Joe’s game, a broken bone the result. And going after Calipari — that film clip lives on.

“Coach Chaney and I fought every game we competed — as everyone knows, sometimes literally — but in the end he was my friend,” Calipari said Friday. “Throughout my career, we would talk about basketball and life. I will miss those talks and I will miss my friend.”

“The man was at the top of his profession, and not afraid to voice his opinion, whether it was the popular opinion or not — you’re going to get a lot of interest,” Ray Cella said of being in charge of the Atlantic 10′s weekly teleconferences from 1990 until Mr. Chaney’s retirement.

First up every week, John Chaney. Each A-10 coach got 10 minutes.

“He always got 15,” Cella said, adding that he didn’t always agree with every opinion by the coach, but “I respected the man more than I could tell you. If I had a kid who could play basketball, I’d have sent him to Temple. I knew he would be taken care of. The man wasn’t afraid.”

“I feel like a huge chunk of my professional life and history just died,” said former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno. “He ended every conversation with me, regardless of content, with, ‘I love you.’”

Leibovitz said he’d stand at practice listening to his boss quoting history and great work of art, poetry from Langston Hughes and William Butler Yeats — “and put it in context, so he could teach from it. It was remarkable.”

» FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Vintage Big 5 memories from John Chaney

Nate Blackwell, a great Owls guard and later Mr. Chaney’s assistant, said at the time Mr. Chaney was going in the sport’s Hall of Fame that he heard the coach before he ever saw him, standing in the lobby at Cheyney University, talking to Bruiser Flint. He must have cursed, Blackwell said, because Mr. Chaney appeared out of nowhere, lit into him, told him he was going to send him home. “I was like, ‘Who is this man?’”

“Those early mornings, you could not be late,” said Ed Coe, on Mr. Chaney’s first Temple team in a 2001 interview. “Even if you had one sock on, you got on the court. One day, two guys, they were like five minutes late. I think it was Dwight Forrester and Terence Stansbury, who was the star of that team. They ran the whole practice. For something like two hours, they ran. The only thing he kept saying, ‘Oh, you want to be a superstar, huh?’”

“He taught me how to play, how to think,” said Pepe Sanchez before that Hall of Fame induction. Sanchez was a point guard for Mr. Chaney who went on to start for the Argentine Olympic team that won a gold medal in 2004. “He just toughens up your mind. ... I used to be really sensitive. He really changes that.”

“He watches guys come on the bus,” Mr. Chaney’s former executive assistant, John DiSangro, once said.. “If he sees a guy who doesn’t have a hat on, he goes crazy. That’s a big thing, hats and gloves.”

Even during pickup games when he began coaching Temple, Chaney was Chaney. “Timeout,” he once yelled during a lunchtime game, seeing no other options.

“I played golf with him one time in Hawaii,” Flint said. “Me, him, Dereck Whittenburg, and Moses Malone. It was the funniest almost four hours I ever had in my life between him and Moses Malone. For about eight holes, me, Whittenburg and Moses didn’t say a word, we just had Coach tell stories for about eight holes. It was absolutely hilarious. When he went out there, he didn’t have any golf shoes. He played in his Gucci loafers. I said, ‘Coach, you need some golf shoes,’ and he said, ‘No, I don’t need any golf shoes, these are all right.’”

“I talked to him on his birthday, last Thursday,” Leibovitz said. “We had a good laugh. I said he had proven you could drink all the beer and eat all the ribs and all the peanuts and still live to be 89.”

On Friday, Sanchez posted a photo of his young Temple self on social media with his Owls coach during a game. Sanchez added some words in Spanish, and translated them himself into English.

“Coach, tomorrow I will wake up at 5:30 a.m., just to remember one of your stories! Thanks for everything ... you touched our lives. Eternal love.”

Staff writer Joe Juliano contributed to this story.