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Former Temple players plan documentary on Coach Chaney

Former Temple University players LaMont Ferrell and Darrin Pearsall just wanted their former basketball coach to say yes . . . to a documentary . . . about his life . . . for television.

LaMont Ferrell interviews Robert Herdelin, a La Salle All-American who played against John Chaney. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
LaMont Ferrell interviews Robert Herdelin, a La Salle All-American who played against John Chaney. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Former Temple University players LaMont Ferrell and Darrin Pearsall just wanted their former basketball coach to say yes . . . to a documentary . . . about his life . . . for television.

But the coach in question was John Chaney. The answer - not surprising - was a repeated and defiant "No!"

So Ferrell and Pearsall, once high school basketball stars and rivals, staged an intervention.

They gathered 10 of Chaney's former players to convince the 82-year-old Hall of Fame coach that not only was his life worth the effort, but, more important, the filmmakers wouldn't get on his nerves.

Eventually, Chaney said yes, the first step in a project produced by Ferrell and Pearsall, two forty-something ex-players who competed against each other in the early 1980s.

The two men are producing The Wise Old Owl, a documentary about the famously hard-charging coach who in compiling a Temple career record of a 516-253 had a huge impact on his players' lives.

"Of course he wanted to win games, but his approach was that there is more to life than basketball, so you need to get your degree," said Ferrell, 47, of Atlanta.

Chaney would say, " 'People are watching you,' " Ferrell said. " 'You need to walk straight in everything you do.' "

Ferrell, a television sitcom writer, and Pearsall, a youth program supervisor who lives in Wilmington, are arranging interviews with former players, fellow coaches, and coworkers. They began filming Feb. 1, when hundreds gathered at Temple's Liacouras Center for the unveiling of bronze statues of Chaney and fellow former Temple basketball coach Harry Litwack.

Ferrell, who is serving as the project's executive producer, was inspired to film while watching ESPN's 30 for 30, a 30-part series on famous people and issues in sports.

"A lightbulb went off," Ferrell said. "The documentary I would most want to see is one right at my fingertips."

He reached out to Pearsall, tapped him to be the documentary's associate producer, and began to plan the project.

Reaching back

Thirty years ago, the two men probably wouldn't have collaborated on anything.

Ferrell was a record-setting forward at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne who scored 2,114 points during his high school career. Pearsall was a star center for Chester High School whose team won the state championship in 1983.

"We couldn't stand one another," said Pearsall, 48.

In 1984, Pearsall was on the verge of landing a spot on the McDonald's High School All-American team when Chester faced Penn Wood in a pivotal game.

"They set up the lights, the glitz, and glamour at Chester High School" in anticipation of the announcement, Pearsall said. "We lost."

With that, Pearsall lost his spot on the McDonald's team.

"It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life," he said.

After that, it was Ferrell's turn to be on the losing side.

Coach Chaney had only one remaining scholarship when he had to make a decision about recruiting Ferrell. Chaney decided to offer it to another player - Pearsall.

"It hurt a little bit, but back then it was all about going to school for free," Ferrell said. So he chose Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md.

Ferrell struggled academically, played only intermittently, and eventually transferred to Temple. He asked Coach Chaney if he could play.

"When I'm talking to youngsters, irrespective of what they've done, I can feel if they're telling the truth," Chaney said of Ferrell's pledge to keep up his grades. "I could feel the truth coming out of LaMont."

Chaney gave him a scholarship.

Pearsall also had difficulties. Despite his role as the crucial sixth man on the No. 1-ranked 1987-88 team, Pearsall eventually transferred to Cheyney University.

"My mother was struggling with multiple sclerosis. I wasn't around that much, and it affected my grades," Pearsall said. Chaney "took issue with it because it seemed like someone he cared about was giving up. But at the time I was the kind of person who kept things bottled up."

Pearsall went on to work as a security guard and substance-abuse counselor. He is now vice chairman of Youth Interlock Society, a mentorship program in Chester founded by Earl Pearsall, his uncle.

Darrin Pearsall says he's only a few credits shy of earning his degree in recreation facilities management.

Chaney says of Pearsall: "I use the term 'As you climb, you should lift.' That means reaching back and helping others. That's what Darrin is doing."

Money is an issue

Pearsall and Ferrell began talking after they left Temple.

Ferrell had embarked on a career in show business after earning his bachelor's degree in communications in 1991. He performed stand-up comedy at the former Funny Bone club on South Street. Later, he moved to Los Angeles and began writing for shows, including Girlfriends and Moesha. Three years ago, he moved to Atlanta, where he writes for BET's Let's Stay Together.

Both men are active in Team Together, an organization of former Temple basketball players who raise funds for scholarships, and meet annually to keep in touch and support each other. Pearsall serves as the group's president.

Last weekend, Ferrell and Pearson greeted former teammates and fellow basketball alums as Chaney was honored. They filmed interviews with former players including Eddie Jones, Mark Macon, and Aaron McKie, using a crew that included Temple students and Christopher Kelsey, a BET staffer and the documentary's producer.

The filmmakers hope to sell the documentary to ESPN, but fund-raising remains a major hurdle. The project, produced by Ferrell's Just Jokes Entertainment L.L.C., is expected to cost about $100,000.

When the project is completed, Ferrell and Pearsall plan a red-carpet premiere at the Liacouras Center. Chaney said he would attend if certain conditions were met.

"I'll only do it if President Barack Obama is the emcee," Chaney said. "And he better bring Michelle and his daughters."