On Jan. 29, 2021, 89-year-old John Chaney, born Jan. 21, 1932 in Jacksonville, Fla., became a revered ancestor.
No disrespect to any other Philadelphia-area university, but any discussion or article or essay or book or anything else about Chaney must begin and end with his historic ten-year basketball coaching tenure at Cheyney State College (which became Cheyney University in 1983).
There are hundreds of reasons why that is true. But due to space constraints, I’ll limit the list to the top five:
1. As the genius who perfected the “match-up zone defense” strategy, Chaney coached the Cheyney Wolves to victory in the 1978 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II Basketball Championship.
2. Chaney was named the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year when he led Cheyney to victory.
3. During his 1972-1982 coaching career at Cheyney State College, Chaney’s record was 232-56, which means he has the highest winning percentage in NCAA Division II — or Division I — basketball history at .792! That’s more than Division I’s top three winningest coaches: more than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at .767, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim at .711, and Indiana’s Bob Knight at .709.
4. Based in large part on his success at Cheyney, Coach Chaney was inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.
5. Many Cheyney State College alumni (including yours truly) believe that, just as some Christians are spiritually “called to preach” at a certain church, Chaney was culturally “called to coach” at Cheyney State College — the country’s first HBCU — after the foundation had been laid for him when he attended and graduated from another HBCU, namely Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Chaney’s historic 1978 championship team consisted of his players- correction, his sons — John Butts, Duane Coleman, Milt Colston (All-American), Andrew “Dip” Fields (Tournament MVP), Kenny “Cisco Kid” Hynson (All Tournament), Jeffrey “White Mouse” Hutcherson, Roger “Bird” Leysath, Gerald “Mo” Mills (deceased), Charles “Murph” Murphy, Gilbert “Gil — The Colonel” Saunders, Arthur “Sugar Bear” Stone, and John ”Blue” Walker (deceased). Charles Songster (deceased) was the Assistant Coach and Joe Iezzi was the Athletic Trainer.
During that season, there were 32 teams in the Division II Men’s Basketball Tournament. They competed in a single elimination series that was capped with the championship game in Springfield, Mo. pitting two powerhouses, Cheyney State College and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, against each other.
Here’s how Chaney’s team got to the big game. After defeating Adelphi University 78-64 in the regional semifinals, Cheyney vanquished Philadelphia College 73-60 in the regional finals. That was followed by a 59-57 nail-biter over Sacred Heart University in the national quarterfinals. Cheyney continued its dominance by rolling over Florida Institute of Technology 79-63 in the national finals.
And then, on March 18, 1978, the Cheyney Wolves — sagely and shrewdly coached by John Chaney — made history by doing for the school what had never been done before or since. It brought home a national basketball championship. No other school or university where Chaney has ever coached can claim that. But Cheyney State College can. And it can because that is where his reputation as a basketball coaching genius and champion was born.
Oh, and by the way, he wasn’t afraid to confront racial discrimination. When the NCAA banned high school athletes who couldn’t score high enough on the SATs — which meant white kids from well-funded suburban schools would have an unfair advantage over Black kids from under-resourced inner-city schools — Chaney publicly condemned it during a 1994 Sports Illustrated interview by stating “What entity has the right to play God? You tellin’ me the NCAA can decide who lives and who dies among Black folks? Education is food! It’s heat! It’s shelter! Who has the right to deprive anyone of that? What choice are we givin’ the kids who fail the SAT? One choice! Back on the streets... to a slow... death.”
I can’t end this article without relaying a conversation I had with Coach Chaney three years ago to nearly the very day. On February 9, 2018 while I was in the midst of organizing the 40th anniversary celebration of Cheyney State College’s national championship (an anniversary event that, I am proud to point out, was officially and formally honored by the Mayor of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia City Council, the Pennsylvania State House, the Pennsylvania State Senate, and the United States Congress), I had the privilege of interviewing this great man. And the first thing he said during our lengthy discussion was “The greatest pride I have is that I was part of the first Black land grant institution of higher learning in America- Cheyney State College.”
Think about that for a moment. Here’s a man who’s a Hall of Famer, a man with 741 NCAA Division I and II total wins, 17 NCAA Division I tournament appearances, five Atlantic Ten Coach of the Year Awards, two United States Basketball Writers Association Awards, a National Association of Basketball Coaches Award, and an Olympic Games coaching appearance. And the first thing he does in the interview with me is to humbly praise Cheyney.
That’s exactly why I say the real legacy of Coach John Chaney is his historic Cheyney championship as well as his love for and his pride in Cheyney.