John Chaney and John Calipari were in each other’s face and at each other’s throat, and four years before the unforgettable press conference that remains the flashpoint in their relationship and rivalry, it was on George Watts to keep the two men from tearing each other to pieces.
This wasn’t February 1994. This wasn’t Chaney storming into a room at the Mullins Center and screaming, “I’ll kill you,” furious that Calipari had continued working the referees after a one-point Massachusetts win over Temple, maybe a little fearful that the Minutemen would soon end the Owls’ dominance in the Atlantic 10. No, this was February 1990 at Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst. This was a triple-overtime will-tester, an 83-82 Temple victory in which a couple of clock-related controversies went against the Owls. With each one, Chaney raised hell at the timekeeper. And Calipari charged over to defend his people. And Watts, a Willow Grove native and one of three officials charged with keeping the peace that Sunday afternoon, had to separate the coaches twice, as if he were a boxing referee, not a basketball one.
“I’m telling you, it was absolute bedlam,” Watts said in a phone interview Monday. “I told both of them, ‘Get back to your benches. You’re making the league look bad. Cut this out. Your teams need you.’
“John was gonna kill him for sure. He didn’t like Calipari at that time. John was old-school, of course, and Calipari was this new, slick, up-and-coming coach.”
Anyone writing an obituary of or tribute to Chaney since his death Friday would be delinquent in omitting that ’94 incident. It has become famous for its glimpse into his raw and naked fury over what he regarded as even the slightest injustice, and its context and genesis can be traced to that earlier game.
“Absolutely,” Watts said. “They can say whatever they want, but coaches have long memories, especially when they’re in the field of battle, so to speak.”
There’s no easy-to-access video of that 1990 game that can be shared on social media or weaved into a retrospective. But Watts can remember clearly those anxious moments when he thought the gym’s nickname – The Cage – was getting a little too literal for comfort. At the end of the second overtime, Chaney argued that one of his players had been fouled in the act of shooting before the game clock expired. The officials said no, and Calipari said something that set off Chaney. It wouldn’t have taken much.
“I don’t know what he said,” Chaney told reporters after the game. “It could have been my mother come up and say something to me then. I didn’t want a stranger in my huddle.”
He went after Calipari. Calipari didn’t back down. Fans chanted obscenities. A UMass student chucked a water bottle at Temple player Mark Strickland, only to have one of Strickland’s teammates, Michael Harden, catch the bottle and fire it back into the crowd. After the game, Temple president Peter Liacouras entered the referees’ locker room, his suit soaked with sweat, his hair matted down in some places and sticking up in others. He paced back and forth before shaking the officials’ hands and praising them for preventing the burgeoning feud between Chaney and Calipari from escalating into a full-scale riot.
“He got upset; I got upset,” Chaney said. “And I was wrong, wrong, wrong. But I’m wrong a lot of times.”
At his core, Chaney was always too complex and caring a man to be defined completely by the rage he unleashed at Calipari, and the truce that they reached in time was maybe the most revealing example of how indignation and tenderness could swirl inside him at the same time. Watts worked for five conferences over his 26 years as a Division I referee, but the Atlantic 10 was his primary territory, and he had more than his share of confrontations with Chaney, most of which were settled and forgotten once Watts admitted he’d made a mistake or Chaney acknowledged that the ref had gotten the call right. “All John wanted was effort,” Watts said. “He didn’t want the stupid excuse.”
Watts retired from officiating in 2002, and his final Temple game was at Rhode Island, an Owls rout. Chaney stopped by the officials’ locker room after the game.
“George,” he said, “all my players liked you. Me … not so much.”
The two of them broke out in laughter. “Then he gave me the biggest, longest hug,” Watts said, “and shook my hand and wished me well. And he said, ‘I’ll see you down the road somewhere.’ Well, it’s a four-hour drive from Rhode Island back to Philly. I cried the whole way. All the [BS] a referee has to go through – the weather, the travel, the fans, the coaches, sleeping in a strange bed – him doing that little act of kindness and giving me that hug, it made it all worthwhile, coming from one man.”
George Watts fought back tears again telling that story Monday morning. From the madness of those UMass moments to the day he died, all John Chaney wanted was effort. All he wanted was a little justice, wherever and however he could get it. Bedlam was a small price to pay.
» READ MORE: This was the John Chaney I knew | Mike Kern