Anthony Solomon helped John Chaney discover the Fountain of Youth.
“I not only coached against him,” said Solomon, “I contributed to one of his milestone victories.”
It was a late January game in 2004 and Solomon, now the associate head coach of the Dayton Flyers, was the head coach at St. Bonaventure.
His Bonnies were losing at Temple and in the final minutes of the game, the Owls fans had begun chanting, “Cha-ney!...Cha-ney!”
As Solomon and his team trudged off the court afterward, 700 red and white balloons suddenly came cascading down from above.
The 72-year-old Chaney had just won his 700th game as a college coach, a milestone only five other active coaches could then claim.
“I found out the balloons had been up there in the rafters all along, so they were expecting to beat us that night,” Solomon said with a bit of a chuckle. “I can laugh about it…now. I realize what an accomplishment it was and what John Chaney meant to the game.”
That night Chaney took a microphone and told the crowd: “I thought I would be a very old man when this happened. But tonight I feel like a very young man.”
Chaney would coach two more seasons and then retire. He’d finish with 741 victories – 225 from a decade as the head coach at Division II Cheyney State and 516 in his 24 seasons at Temple.
In 34 years as a college head coach, he had just one losing season. He won a national title at Cheyney State and took five Temple teams to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
He was voted the national coach of the year in 1988, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 and the college basketball hall five years later.
And yet his success on the court is only part of the story. And not the most important part.
“He taught his kids life skills and what’s important to them,” Solomon said. “And he set an example for the African American coaches who followed him. He was always happy to reach out and make sure we knew what our purpose should be.”
And younger black coaches like Solomon and Flyers head coach Anthony Grant did learn from him.
That’s why both spoke so respectfully of him following UD’s 67-56 victory over Rhode Island Saturday at UD Arena.
On Friday, Chaney had died eight days after his 89th birthday.
“I didn’t know him personally, but I did something because of him that I’d never done before,” Grant said. “When I was an assistant at Florida we got beat by them in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and afterward I went to his press conference.
“I was a huge fan of his. I knew guys who played for him and I’d heard some of the stories they’d shared. I wanted to listen to him.”
Over the years I listened to Chaney a lot at press conferences across the country. I sat with him in locker rooms and hotel lobbies and once commiserated with him as he walked down the steep ramp at UD Arena, cussing the whole way because the perilous trek was made even more challenging by a pair of too-tight, new shoes.
My favorite story though came in 2006 during the A-10 Tournament at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati.
The day before his Temple team had beaten sixth-ranked, 26-1 George Washington and now he wasn’t planning on changing anything, be it his famed matching zone defense or his newfound luck.
“They sent a note around the hotel that the water was being cut off at 9 a.m., so I had get up at 8,” he grumbled in that always raspy voice. “That was the only way I could wash my drawers and T-shirt in the sink.
“Either that or I’d have had to wash them in the toilet!”
“Coach, that’s nasty,” said Temple star, Mardy Collins, who sat nearby in the dressing room. “Shut up!” snapped Chaney, who was known for his streetwise banter and old-time superstitions.
“I wear the same underwear every game.”
From Florida to Philly
Chaney grew up in a dirt-poor section of Jacksonville, Fla., called “Black Bottom.”
His mom, a woman whose heart outweighed her hardship, constantly told him: “Always leave the door open for a stray dog.”
He would embrace that principle later as a coach, but first he had to find his own way when his stepdad moved them to Philadelphia when he was 14.
Chaney was small, poor and naïve – a Southern boy in a tough neighborhood up North – and often found himself picked on until he got into basketball.
In 1951 he was voted the MVP of the Philadelphia Public League. Snubbed by the local colleges, he went back to Florida to Division II Bethune Cookman in Daytona Beach.
After that he joined the Harlem Globetrotters, but soon quit when he discovered the tricks were scripted.
Back then the NBA still had an unspoken quota on black players and he ended up playing 10 years in the Eastern Professional Basketball League.
His first coaching job was at a junior high and then he spent six years at Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School. From there he went to Cheney State and on to Temple.
From the start, he championed black athletes, whether it was in opposing the NCAA’s Prop 48 – which he felt disproportionately kept blacks from the field of play – to practicing his mom’s mantra to “keep the door open” for strays.
Over the years he took in down-on-their-luck players, some who became stars, others who rarely played.
Among them was Aaron McKie, whose dad had died when he was young and whose mom had left later. He had a low SAT score, but ended graduating, playing in the NBA and now is the Owls head coach.
Chaney held practices at 5:30 in the morning so his players wouldn’t miss any classes.
I was around him enough that I’d heard him cuss like a sailor, recite the poetry of Langston Hughes and once sing Sinatra. I also heard some of his corny sayings, like: “If a flea can pull a plow, hook his (butt) up.”
When he coached he’d become so animated, so overcome with emotion and exasperation, that he’d shed his sports coat, pull off his expensive tie and undo a few of the top buttons on his neatly pressed white shirt until, by game’s end, he looked like he’d been on an all-night drunk.
Sometimes that passion got him into a jam, most famously when he burst into John Calipari’s press conference after a game because he felt the UMass coach had badgered the referees into bad calls on the Owls.
He had to be restrained, as he yelled at Calipari: “I’m gonna kick your ass” and “I’ll kill you.”
Chaney later apologized and he and Calipari became good friends. The past couple of days the now-Kentucky coach has talked a few times about how he’ll miss his “old friend.”
‘Welcome to the Sticks’
Chaney was most famously known here for referring to the city as “the sticks” when he was told the A-10 Tournament was moving from Philadelphia to Dayton in 2003.
The UD fans had some fun with him when he came into UD Arena later in the season. They held a banner saying “Welcome to the Sticks” and many of the students wore John Deere caps and straw hats.
Chaney joined in on his ribbing. He talked with fans, signed autographs and wore a straw hat just before tip off.
By then the crowd was in love with him.
But the time that touched me the most happened at the NCAA Tournament in Kansas City in 1997.
Some 10 months earlier, Jim Maloney, the tall, apple-cheeked Irishman who was Chaney’s longtime assistant coach, had died suddenly of a heart attack.
The loss crushed Chaney and that day he’d kept a seat open next to him on the bench. It was graced with a shamrock and all of the Temple players had green shamrocks sewn onto their game pants.
“Jimmy loved me and I loved him,” Chaney tearfully explained later.
The next day was St. Patrick’s Day and Chaney made a promise: “Jimmy used to tell all those Irish stories and most of them weren’t that good, but now I’m going to keep up the tradition.
“I’m calling his family, his kids, and telling some stories about Pop and they will be good. I want them all to know what a good man he was.”
And today, that’s just what people are doing with John Chaney, too.
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