John Chaney is a retired basketball coach who is best known for his twenty-four-year career as the head coach at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At Temple Chaney earned both admiration for his role in developing a nationally competitive team and criticism for outbursts of temper on the court. Though some fans may remember Chaney more for incidents of unsportsmanlike behavior at games, his players and colleagues knew another side of Chaney, that of a committed teacher who devoted his career to protecting and supporting his athletes.
Raised in poverty during an era of legally sanctioned racism, Chaney earned his college education through his athletic skill. He became a firm believer in the importance of education for young people who wished to improve their lives. As a coach, whether at the junior high, high school, or university level, Chaney worked hard to provide leadership and guidance to the young men who played on his teams. Although he always focused on building a winning team, he never lost sight of what he considered the most important function of college athletics—providing a means to higher education for low-income youth.
John Chaney was born on January 21, 1932, in Jacksonville, Florida. His father abandoned the family, and his mother, Early, supported herself and her son with low-paying domestic work. Several years later, she married Sylvester Chaney, a janitor, who became Chaney's stepfather and mentor, teaching him the value of work and family responsibility. Economic opportunities for a working-class African-American family were very limited in the southern United States during the 1930s and 1940s, so when John was fourteen his stepfather moved the family to Philadelphia and took a job in the shipyards.
As a teenager in the working-class neighborhood of South Philly, Chaney began playing basketball, first in pickup street games, where he played against future greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, then on the varsity team at Benjamin Franklin High School. His high school coach, Sam Browne, became another important mentor in Chaney's life, guiding him through an outstanding high school career that culminated in a Most Valuable Player title in 1951 in the Philadelphia Public League.
Earned College Scholarship
Though any white player with Chaney's skill and record would have been courted by college teams, few top-ranked schools wanted African-American players during the 1950s, and none recruited Chaney. His stepfather began to pressure him to give up the sport and take a job, but Browne was determined that Chaney should have access to higher education. He approached Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida, that had been founded by educator Mary McLeod Bethune in 1904. On Browne's recommendation, Bethune-Cookman offered Chaney a full basketball scholarship. Though painful memories of his early years of poverty in Florida made him reluctant to return there, Chaney recognized the opportunity and entered Bethune-Cookman in 1951.
Chaney's stellar basketball career continued in college. A powerhouse guard, he scored a record 57 points in one game and helped his team to win the 1953 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament. That same year he was named all-American by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Along with his athletic achievements, he also learned essential lessons about the importance of academics. When one of his teachers, Carol Meeks, gave him a failing grade, he was suspended from the basketball team until he improved his class work. Realizing that his performance in college would affect his employment opportunities for the rest of his life, he began to work harder in his classes. For many years, he called Meeks each year to thank her for requiring him to do his best.
After Chaney graduated from Bethune-Cookman in 1955, he hoped, like many star college athletes, to earn his living by playing ball. Since the National Basketball Association (NBA) did not hire African-American players, he sought work with other teams. For a short time he played with the Harlem Globetrotters, an all-black touring team that combined athletic skill with comedy and flamboyant ball-handling. He then began playing in the Pennsylvania-based Eastern League, which had begun hiring black players before the NBA was integrated. Chaney was paid by the game, with his salary often depending on how many tickets were sold to spectators. He played for Eastern League teams for nearly ten years, earning most valuable player awards in 1959 and 1960.
Chaney's career on the court came to an abrupt end during the early 1960s when he injured his knee in an automobile accident. Unable to play basketball, he took a job teaching physical education and coaching basketball at Phildelphia's Sayre Junior High School. After coaching his team to fifty-nine wins out of sixty-eight games at Sayre, he moved to Simon Gratz High School, also in Philadelphia, where he served as health and physical education teacher as well as dean of boys. He continued to coach basketball at Simon Gratz, greatly improving that team's win record as well.
Chaney's coaching success caught the attention of the athletic department of Cheyney State College (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) a historically black college in the suburbs of Philadelphia. In 1972 the school hired Chaney as head basketball coach. He remained at Cheyney State for ten years, taking the Cheyney Wolves to the 1978 Division II championship and amassing 225 wins and only 59 losses during his coaching career there.
At a Glance …
Born January 21, 1932, in Jacksonville, FL; son of Early and stepson of Sylvester Chaney; married, wife's name Jeanne, 1952; children: Pamela, John, Darryl. Education: Bethune-Cookman College, 1955.
Career: Harlem Globetrotters, professional basketball player, 1955; Eastern League, professional basketball player, 1956-63; Sayre Junior High School, physical education teacher, basketball coach, 1963-67; Simon Gratz High School, health and physical education teacher, dean of boys, basketball coach, 1967-72; Cheyney State College, men's basketball, head coach, 1972-82; Temple University, men's basketball, head coach, 1982-2006.
Awards: Division II National Coach of the Year, 1978; U.S. Basketball Writers Association, National Coach of the Year, 1987, 1988; Atlantic 10 Conference Coach of the Year, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2000; National Basketball Hall of Fame, 2001; Philadelphia Area Small-College Basketball Hall of Fame, 2008.
Coached at Temple University
In 1982 Philadelphia's Temple University approached Chaney with a job offer. Noting his ability to coach teams to winning records, the school hired him as head coach in hopes that he could build a nationally competitive basketball team at Temple. For the next twenty-four years, Chaney remained at Temple, coaching the team through seventeen National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournaments and five NCAA regional finals. Chaney fulfilled his promise to make Temple a national contender, but his contribution to his team went far beyond his win-loss record, and he taught his players much more than the drills and plays that would improve their game.
Having grown up under the disadvantages of a broken home, poverty, and racism, Chaney understood the problems facing his players, many of whom were scholarship students from similar backgrounds. He became a father figure and mentor to his team members as well as coach and teacher, and he taught his players the self-discipline and commitment that he believed they needed to succeed in the world beyond basketball. Chaney's team practices began at 5:30 am so that his players would have time to study and attend all their classes, and he made it clear that education should never come second to sport. "They just want to bounce the ball and dribble the ball, but I talk about things that are going to stay with them for the rest of their lives," Chaney said during a press conference reported on the ESPN Web site. "Somewhere along the line, it will reverberate and they'll remember it."
Having grown up in an era when higher education was out of reach for nearly all poor people, Chaney considered it part of his job to help young people who felt out of place and excluded at academic institutions such as Temple. He fought hard against policies he thought were unfair, including standardized testing for basketball eligibility, which he considered racially biased. In addition, he supported other black coaches when they confronted prejudice and discrimination.
Developed Controversial Reputation
It was the heat of the game that often brought out the angry fighter in Chaney. During his career at Temple he became infamous for his outbursts, many of which caused him to be suspended for one or more games. In 1984 he made news when he physically attacked George Washington University coach Gerry Gimelstob during a dispute, and in 1994 he was suspended for threatening to kill University of Massachusetts coach John Calipari at a postgame news conference. He apologized to Calipari, and the two became friends, but Chaney's reputation for hotheadedness remained. His most serious violation occurred in 2005 during a game with St. Joseph's University. Angry that referee calls seemed to favor St. Joseph's, Chaney sent in a large, muscular player with instructions to commit intentional, "hard" fouls against opposing players. When a St. Joseph's team member's arm was broken during play, players, fans, sportswriters, and administrators loudly criticized Chaney's methods, some calling for his dismissal. Chaney offered a sincere apology for his actions and was suspended for five subsequent games.
Though some will remember him for his angry courtside manner, the many students Chaney coached will remember him as their tireless teacher and champion. On the occasion of Chaney's retirement, president David Adamany of Temple University said: "Chaney's basketball achievements are legendary…. [His] most exemplary accomplishment will be in the lives he transformed by providing opportunity to, and demanding excellence from, the student-athletes he recruited to Temple. His very presence restored Temple's basketball program to one of national importance."
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