“I’ll kill you.”
Those words will be replayed a lot this weekend, when the news is delivered that John Chaney is gone. Understandable, probably. It’s not every day that one coach storms into another coach’s post-game press conference and threatens to bend him into the shape of a Philadelphia soft pretzel. Chaney’s enraged charge at a young John Calipari after a Temple-Massachusetts game in 1994 is one of the film clips that will never die.
And yet, there should certainly be more replays of the most important and long-lasting features of Chaney’s 89 years. The lives he touched, the young men he mentored, the unfairness he challenged, the sense of right and wrong that drove him, or the passion that fueled him. “A true icon,” Craig Robinson, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, called Chaney in a statement. “One of the most unique personalities college basketball has ever seen.”
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You had to get up pretty early in the morning to get the jump on Chaney. His pre-dawn practices became his signature, along with the zone that could strangle an offense, the glare that could freeze a sauna, or the fire that could melt an igloo. You never had to strain to hear Chaney’s opinion of the situation. He’d rage on the sideline with undone tie and unbridled vocabulary, but basketball is demanding and so is life, and he wanted his young men to be ready for both. Hard to imagine a player crossing Chaney. But part of that deal was that world had better treat his guys right, because when he felt it hadn’t, the walls rattled and the earth moved and he didn’t much care who he offended. That served him well through 741 victories at Temple and Cheney State, and in many ways, a trailblazing career that began with coaching junior high schoolers.
His steadfast values were impossible not to admire, his honesty easy to respect. Even foes became friends. This came Friday from the Twitter account of John Calipari: “Coach Chaney and I fought every game we competed — as everyone knows, sometimes literally — but in the end he was my friend. Throughout my career, we would talk about basketball and life. I will miss those talks and I will my friend. Rest in peace. Coach!”
It’s a fair guess that Chaney faced many injustices in his life, but speaking strictly basketball, this was the worst: He never saw the inside of a Final Four. He knocked on the door like a florist delivery person on Valentine’s Day, but never was admitted. Five times to the Elite Eight. Five times, turned away. It seemed close enough to reach with a swinging tie.
And it wasn’t just anybody slamming the door on him.
A young Mike Krzyzewski in 1988. Temple was 32-1 going against Duke, but Owls freshman star Mark Macon had an awful shooting day — taking 29 shots and missing 23 of them — and the Blue Devils won 63-53.
Dean Smith in 1991. Macon was still at Temple and scored 31 points, but his 3-pointer to tie at the end bounced away and North Carolina escaped 75-72.
Michigan’s Fab Five in 1993. The Owls’ zone defense frustrated the Wolverines and Temple was up eight at halftime. But foul trouble and Chris Webber turned the game around in the second half and Temple lost 77-72. “They just outmanned us,” Chaney said afterward.
Krzyzewski again in 1999. Duke was on an absolute tear and rolled over Temple 85-64 for its 31st consecutive victory.
Tom Izzo in 2001. An 11th-seeded Temple team with 12 losses nearly took its Cinderella run to the Final Four. But a relatively unknown Michigan State player named David Thomas scored a career high 19 points, made eight of his 10 shots, and led the Spartans to a 69-62 win. Thomas had scored none two days earlier in the regional semifinal win over Gonzaga.
Chaney was 69. “It’s a very high moment and a very low moment,” he said. “I’m certainly feeling pretty low because I could not get them to the Final Four. I’m feeling extremely high because they got me this far. It’s so difficult not to be able to make that step.”
He had no bigger fan that day than the coach who beat him.
“John Chaney stands for everything I believe in, and hopefully, I can last as many years as he has,” Izzo said. “I love his discipline, his lectures to his players. I feel fortunate and honored to play them and beat them. The guy deserves to be in the Final Four. It’s a shame he hasn’t gotten there. I still think he will. He’s got some games left.”
No, he didn’t. Not in the NCAA tournament, anyway, for that was his final game. He would coach five more seasons, but they would all end in the NIT. The Final Four door will remain forever closed to John Chaney. But the Hall of Fame opened a long time ago.