💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
John Chaney was more than just a basketball coach. When news spread that the legendary Hall of Famer died Friday, just days after his 89th birthday, tributes praised his tough-love style and mentorship to young players. But many also remembered the former Temple coach for his fascinating stories and drive to teach life lessons.
“He was a gentleman,” said Aaron McKie, current Owls basketball coach and former student-athlete who played under Chaney in the early ’90s. “He was funny. He was human. He was just like us.”
Chaney landed in Philadelphia as a teenager. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he was raised by his single mother in a family that never had much money. He credited his stepfather Slyvester with teaching him the importance of hard work and leadership.
The family moved to Philly right after World War II, and Chaney discovered his passion for basketball via pickup street games. A varsity player at Benjamin Franklin High School, he was named 1951 MVP in the Philadelphia Public League.
Not many colleges recruited Black players in the 1950s, but Chaney’s high school coach and mentor Sam Browne managed to get him a full basketball scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University.
Upon graduation in 1955, Chaney wanted to go pro. Since the NBA didn’t hire African American players at the time, he played with the Harlem Globetrotters, and then spent a decade in the Pennsylvania-based Eastern League.
After he was sidelined by an injury, Chaney went on to make waves as one of Temple’s most-revered coaches, with his feisty style and penchant for confrontation sometimes landing him in hot water along the way. His death was mourned by people the world over, from NBA legends to former U.S. presidents.
Here’s a look at Chaney’s memorable path from high school coach to Hall of Fame inductee, and some of the praise he’s garnering from around the city — and the globe.
Coaching teens and pre-teens in West and North Philly
In the early 1960s, Chaney’s playing career came to an end when he injured his knee in a car accident, setting him on the path to changing basketball programs, inspire young players and bring home wins.
His first coaching gig was with Sayre Junior High in Cobbs Creek, where he earned a 59-9 record season. He moved over to Simon Gratz High School in Hunting Park, and continued racking up victories. His success caught the eye of what was then called Cheyney State College, where he spent 10 years coaching the Wolves. He had a 225-59 record during his coaching time there, and led the team to a 1978 Division II Championship.
Landing at Temple
In 1982, Chaney was hired by Temple University, where he began cementing his legacy.
Over 24 years, he led the Owls to 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, including five Elite Eights and seven Atlantic 10 Conference Championships. One of his most notable seasons came in 1987-88, when the Owls went 32-2 and remained undefeated in the Atlantic 10, ending the year with the country’s No.1 ranking.
Chaney was twice named Division I Coach of the Year twice and is a five-time winner of the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year Award.
Discipline as key to the game — and life
Though he never won a national championship or made a Final Four appearance, most players who came up under Chaney credit his coaching as some of the best they’ve every had, saying it helped make them who they are today.
He famously looked out for players coming from difficult backgrounds, hoping to pay it forward and make them successful, just like his high school coach did for him.
Discipline was his prime coaching style, and he made sure players had a team-first mentality. Practice began at 5:30 a.m. — that way, the players were free to attend to their studies with no interruptions. No celebration after plays, so players could focus on the next one. Focus was his key, both in school and on the court.
Not afraid of controversy
Chaney was a competitor, and he showed that nature on the sidelines. Fans who went to his game recall being able to hear Chaney’s voice no matter how far up in the stands they were seated. The coach would enter the game well dressed in a suit, but by the end of the night, his sleeves were rolled up, and the tie was undone.
The confrontational spirit did garner some backlash — and sometimes suspensions.
In 1984, Chaney grabbed George Washington head coach Geery Gimelstob by the neck during halftime. In 1994, Chaney came to a news conference and shouted “I’ll kill you” at UMass coach John Calipari, after losing by one point. In 2005, Chaney was suspended five games for telling a player known as “goon” to purposely commit hard fouls.
Retirement and Hall of Fame inductions
Chaney retired in 2006 at age 74. He finished his coaching career with a 741-312 record — an impressive 70.3% winning stat. After he stepped down, he continued to be a mentor for his players — and for the coaches that succeeded him.
Current Temple head coach and former Sixer Aaron Mckie remembered being in awe the first time he saw Chaney, since he’d heard the name so often growing up.
“One of few Black men I could look at in society and be like, ‘I want to be just like him,’” McKie said during a Saturday press conference hosted by the university.
Chaney was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. His banner and statue live at the Liacouras Center — the place where he started honing the “Temple Tuff” spirit.
Chaney celebrated his 89th birthday last Thursday. He leaves behind his wife of 67 years, Jeanne Dixon, and their three children.