John Chaney was never afraid to throw a punch — or at least threaten to.
That made him a lot of enemies, and gave him a reputation characterized by adjectives that sound invented only for him: irascible, cantankerous, surly, grouchy.
Yet for all his obstinance, one thing was always true: When he did throw a punch, he was punching up.
Chaney, the legendary Temple men’s basketball coach who died Friday at the age of 89, was one of a select few figures in sports who were true champions of the little guy. John Thompson, Rick Majerus and a handful of other coaches like Chaney were part of a specific breed from a specific era, who railed against the inequality of Prop 48 while simultaneously using it to build successful programs with players the NCAA had deemed unfit — and at the same time, challenge the status quo of the sport and society.
But nobody could hold the establishment’s feet to the fire like Chaney. He was unrelenting, unforgiving. If a top 25 program was afraid to play his mid-major Owls, Chaney would call its coach an SOB to his face. If an elected official supported laws that took advantage of Blacks or the poor, he’d turn a postgame news conference into a lecture on institutional discrimination. If his own university’s policies didn’t give back to its inner-city community, he’d call the school president and give him a piece of his mind.
Every time Temple stepped onto the national stage — which, in the Atlantic 10 Conference’s heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, was fairly often — the talk was always about Chaney’s 5 a.m. practices and how tough he coached his players. And, man, did he. If an Owls player missed a defensive rotation, Chaney would yank him from the game and tear into him on the sideline. Then he’d tear into him on the bench. Then he’d tear into him in the locker room.
Then he’d kiss him on the head and tell him how much he loved him.
And he did love them. He didn’t just love his players, though. He loved Temple students, whose working class backgrounds contrasted with the bluebloods of crosstown Villanova and UPenn, and mirrored his own program’s perceived mid-tier status despite reaching five Elite Eights and only Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky compiling more all-time Division I victories. He loved every underdog, every person from a low-income household or difficult family background, anyone who had ever been taken advantage of. And he would fight for every last one of them.
They weren’t all great moments. He once admittedly sent a “goon” into a game, which ended in the accidental injury of an opposing player, because he thought his team wasn’t being treated fairly by the officials. And the “I’ll kill you!” episode with John Calipari is the only memory many casual fans have of him. There’s a fair chance that a lot of people hated him.
The common thread in every unfortunate incident or story of praise or eyebrow-raising quote, however, was that he always felt he was standing up against somebody who was giving somebody else a raw deal.
He was what the polar opposite of a bully looks like. He was always in some sort of scrap. He was always embroiled in some type of argument. He always looked like his blood pressure was sky-high.
At the same time, he almost always had a smile on his face, because Chaney relished a good fight — as long as he was punching up.