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Owl With A Growl

John Chaney is coming off his 500th victory at Temple, a milestone the emotional and outspoken basketball coach almost didn't get to enjoy

November 17, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — John Chaney sits behind a desk cluttered with small boxes of cereal, 10 cans of chicken gumbo soup and five jars of pickled okra.

A friend who owns a diner delivers cases of cereal to the Temple men's basketball coach.

"At the grocery you can't buy the little boxes except in a package with a lot of other [stuff] that I don't like," Chaney said. "Grocery stores near me don't carry the chicken gumbo anymore so I got to go to the factory and get me some. Pickled okra? You try and find that stuff."

So Chaney finds the stuff, the cereal, the rare gumbo, the condiment oddity, the same way he finds basketball players who will embrace his most unchanging basketball precepts -- don't turn over the basketball and play defense on the move, match up zone, always.

Chaney, 73, will bring Temple to Pauley Pavilion tonight for an NIT Season Tip-Off tournament second-round game against UCLA. Tuesday night, Chaney got his 500th victory as the Owls' coach, 69-37 over Army.

Temple committed only four turnovers -- three too many according to Chaney -- and the packed student section gave the old coach a standing ovation.

It was an emotional moment and one Chaney almost didn't get to enjoy.

In February, in an emotional game against Philadelphia and Atlantic 10 Conference rival St. Joseph's, Chaney sent rarely used reserve Nehemiah Ingram in to commit hard fouls.

Chaney had suggested before the game what his strategy would be if officials did not call illegal moving screens that he thought St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli had employed during a previous game.

In quick order, Ingram committed five hard fouls. One of them caused John Bryant of the Hawks to fall and break his arm. In the postgame news conference Chaney said he used Ingram as a "goon."

Chaney served a five-game suspension, coached in a season-ending NIT loss at Virginia Tech, then waited while a city argued his future over talk radio.

Ultimately, Temple President David Adamany allowed Chaney to return this season. In a public apology, Chaney called his behavior "reprehensible." Later, Chaney and Martelli held a private meeting to work things out, emerging from a restaurant to announce they were co-sponsoring a drive for all Atlantic 10 coaches to donate money for Hurricane Katrina relief.

"Is it over?" Chaney said last week. "It will never be over. Every time we play St. Joe's it won't be over."

What Chaney's critics didn't often mention during the controversy was that he brings his players into the gym for practice at 6 each morning figuring that once they're awake and put through a tough scrimmage they will get themselves to class.

When his anger boils over it usually is over what he perceives as a fairness issue -- in this case moving screens that prohibited his players from playing the type of defense he demands.

"The commotion over the hard fouls, I know it bothered John to some degree," said Dean Demopoulos, lead assistant for the Portland Trail Blazers and a Chaney assistant for 17 years. "Coach has been in controversial things before. He's always been good at saying he was wrong and trying to make that wrong right. People can disagree with his actions sometimes, but you can't disagree with what's in his heart.

"Coach is going to speak his mind and a lot of what he says isn't popular, not mainstream thought in many respects. He always had the courage to speak, in opposition to the war for example. He's been vilified for that. But he will speak his mind."

The walls in Chaney's windowless office are covered with prints by Ernie Barnes, an artist and former football player. The paintings are mostly filled with young black men and women.

One of Chaney's favorites is titled "Dreams," depicting a sleeping black child in a decrepit room. The focal point is a hole in the wall. Tears gather in Chaney's eyes as he points to the painting and says, "That's just a poor kid who wants to get out of that room, out of that life. He wants to get out of poverty. He has dreams. We can't put down a kid's dream."

In 34 years as a college coach, first at Cheney State outside of Philadelphia and then at Temple, Chaney has a 725-297 record. Tuesday's win pushed Chaney past former DePaul coach Ray Meyer and into 14th place in victories.

Chaney has taken five Temple teams into the NCAA tournament Elite Eight but never further. In 2001, the Owls lost to Michigan State, 69-62; in 1999 it was top-ranked Duke who knocked Temple out, 85-64; in 1993 Michigan's "Fab Five" beat the Owls, 77-72; in 1988, when Temple was ranked No. 1, it lost to Duke, 63-53. Chaney always has lost to a school with more resources and more high school All-Americans, more depth, but never more heart.

"If you look at our rosters year by year you'll notice we never had the big names," said assistant Mark Macon, a former Owl player who is one of the few high school All-Americans Chaney ever signed. "What the man means to his players is his heart and his fairness. He gives everybody a chance. But he don't make it easy."

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