Nolan Richardson: ‘John Chaney was one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met’
The longtime Temple coach died at the age of 89 on Jan. 29
Nolan Richardson picked up a phone call on Jan. 29 from his sister, who began by telling him: “John died.”
The former University of Arkansas coaching legend replied that he knew that former Georgetown coach John Thompson had died several months ago. But Richardson’s sister explained that she was talking about former Temple coach John Chaney, who died at the age of 89.
A defensive-minded coach, Chaney led Temple to 17 NCAA tournament appearances and five Elite Eight appearances during his career. He was named the NABC Coach of the Year in 1988. He also coached historically Black college and university Cheyney State (now Cheyney University) to a Division II national title in 1978 and finished his coaching career with a 741-312 record.
Richardson, 79, told The Undefeated that he admired Chaney for having successful teams that played with his fire and discipline.
“John Chaney was one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met in my lifetime, on and off the floor,” Richardson said. “The way he drilled his teams. The way he conducted himself over the years. And I know those years, because they were Jim Crow years. Trying to find a job, or do a job and getting the opportunity only at Cheyney State. He won a national championship there. Later on, he got a job in Philadelphia at Temple and most of his kids came from the East Coast or the Philadelphia area. …
“He was a tremendous father figure, especially in the days when we came up when there was no dad in the home at all. He led his teams. Watching him coach and the way his players played, they played with the fire and toughness that John Chaney had as a person. So, that was one of the first things I noticed, that his players really resembled him. Just strategic, tough. Of course, we were totally opposite. But you enjoy someone who knows how to command, and demand, their players to play the way he wants them to play. And he was the master of that.”
Chaney and Richardson, along with Thompson and then-University of Southern California coach George Raveling, were successful African American coaches who were also key figures in the Black Coaches Association (BCA) in the 1980s and ’90s. The four Basketball Hall of Fame members played a mammoth role in bringing attention to the lack of Black coaches in college basketball despite the fact that most of the players were African American. In January 1994, the Black Coaches Association threatened to have its membership boycott games because the NCAA was leaning on culturally biased standardized college entrance examinations that often left Black players ineligible.
Richardson would go on to lead the Arkansas Razorbacks to a 1994 NCAA championship and three Final Fours. He would become known for his aggressive style on both ends of the floor, nicknamed “40 Minutes of Hell.” The 79-year-old is currently documenting his coaching career with his grandson. He also recently received the COVID-19 vaccine. (“I tell everybody, ‘When the scientists tell me, I got to follow the scientists.’ “)
Richardson spoke to The Undefeated about his last conversation with Chaney, the legacy of Chaney and Thompson, and his worries about African American coaches today.
What do you recall about your last conversation with Chaney?
I talked to Chaney, I want to say, no more than eight to 10 days ago. I try to call and check on him regularly. We were laughing because we talked about getting old. How your ankles hurt, your shoes, your feet, your toenails. …
We would talk a little bit about the state of basketball, today versus yesteryear. We see the game a little bit different, played the game different, approached the game different. We were talking about the fact the coaches back in the day, ’90s or ’80s, you knew who most of the top coaches in the country were. Today, I don’t know any coach anywhere except for the old guys on the tail end like Roy Williams. Maybe Bill Self, he was a young buck coaching then, now he’s an old buck. [Jim] Boeheim, he’s still around. The Big East, they had John [Thompson] up there, and Rollie Massimino. You heard of these guys. You heard of the Billy Tubbs. The teams were the personalities of the coaches. It was amazing.
What do you think about Chaney’s impact on college basketball in terms of speaking out about the lack of Black coaches and other racial things?
Chaney, to me, was a guy that had brilliant ideas and researched things that could help us present what we thought was an injustice, especially to trying to become a coach in this US of A because the only jobs we’d had in that period, are private school jobs. We had seven coaches that were Black, and I bet you four or five of the schools are private. So, we never got, the ‘University of so and so’ or, ‘the University of …’ No. We were Tulsa, Temple, Georgetown.
And all those jobs, if you look at the history of those jobs, they were like graveyard. You go there to die. They weren’t winning, they didn’t beat nobody, and then all of a sudden, Big John’s in the Big East, my man gets a job over at Temple, and they become tough, tough, tough to beat. I guess George was around doing some stuff, and I was probably one of the younger coaches, even though John [Thompson] and I are two months apart in age. Chaney was, to me, one of the pioneers.
What is your best Chaney story?
Being Black, as a kid most of us had fathers, mothers or grandmothers with a certain way they spoke to us. In other words, when John jumped on [then-Massachusetts coach] John Calipari by saying, ‘I’ll kill you,’ he was just saying what we used to be told every day by a dad, or grandfather, or mother. ‘Boy, if you don’t come back in here, I’m going to kill you.’ That was just the normal speaking, the way we were raised. And it didn’t mean anything to us. It was just like, ‘OK. I’ll come on back.’ My mom, or dad, or granny, or uncle wasn’t going to kill us. It’s just an expression, they feel how mad they could be. Well, when John did that to Calipari, I called him to say, ‘Man, you can’t be calling telling about killing nobody, man in this day and age.’ Chaney said, ‘Oh, man. I forgot where I was, man.’
You can take sometimes the city boy out of the city, or the country boy out of the country, but with John, it is what it is. I think John [Thompson] called him, George called him and then we talked about it, and it was funny. Later on, I guess he apologized. To me, or John, or George, that wasn’t nothing. But you name some of the other high and mighty coaches and they were saying, ‘Oh, man. He’s threatening his wife!’ I said, ‘Oh, s—. Come on!’ But anyway, that was funny.
Did you, Chaney, Thompson and Raveling talk much in recent years about the state of Black coaches today?
We did, because we talk about agendas. The reason we had the BCA was to make people aware and informed that, not only are we fighting for our kids that they’re ruling out of college, but the more you rule out of the college ranks, the less chance of them getting a job on something they love doing. That is, whether they are coaching basketball or coaching football. To me, I was out there. My fight was for everything.
Let’s get more football coaches. Let’s have some athletic directors. Let’s have some presidents to the universities. In other words, we need to open the door so we can have opportunities. Give our kids a chance to look and see that they can be what they see. Can you be what you see? Yes, if you see it. If you don’t see it, you can’t be it.
When I was growing up, you look over on the sideline, sometimes I played on teams where I was the only Black. … Many games I played like that and that’s because the schools were segregated. So, I grew up a little bit different, fighting all the time. All the time. Proving yourself all the time. If you want to be the best, so you got to prove yourself the most.
It was the same way as a coach. And I think the young [Black] coaches today, the road has been paved a little bit. We were walking on gravel roads. It was hurting. They paved it though. You lose sight when everything is going OK. And it’s not going OK, really, because when you start looking at the percentage of Black coaches, the people that gets jobs versus the proportion of how many youngsters are playing. It ain’t close to being fair. …
It’s a different breed of individual in coaching now. They have their own agenda. It may not be as focused in trying to open doors [for coaches of color], as I think the old guys tried to do, and the guys before them, and the guys before them.
What do you recall about the BCA considering getting its Black coaches to boycott games in 1994?
We had meetings. We went to sit down and visit on what was going on and what it is that we could do. There was no one to have to entice me to do anything because I saw what they were doing. And I saw that I was an established coach, and I knew that if I couldn’t say anything then, I should not ever say nothing again. I have the platform to be able to say or do whatever we think that can help us lean forward. I was on it.
And that was in 1994, before we won the national championship. And I had a team that had a chance to win a national championship, maybe not knowing it at that point, because we were planning on doing the march during that year.
How do you hope history remembers yourself, Chaney, Thompson and Raveling?
The message that I think we were trying to send was, ‘Give us an opportunity. Don’t judge us by the color. Give us an opportunity to prove ourselves.’ To me, if you’re not given the opportunity, you can’t prove nothing. To me, that’s all they were asking. The test scores, for example, how do I go to [high] school four years, and I flunk one [SAT] test, and I’m ineligible? What was the four years for? Does that not count? I failed.
If I had come in those days, I wouldn’t have passed a standardized test. I was not a very good test taker. I got through the college route, but if I had to go through what the NCAA was doing then, it would have eliminated me from having the opportunity because my parents and grandparents couldn’t pay no scholarship. Are you kidding me? How did they have food on the table, much less going to send some kid to college? The only thing I had was, ‘How good is he and can he come play basketball, football, baseball, track and win himself a scholarship?’ We paid for that. That’s different when you go off to play and kids receive a few dollars from their parents, and you look in your envelope and are told, ‘Keep working hard, son.’ And that’s the end of that. We don’t have nothing.
If you live in an ivory tower and you’re looking down at your own people, it’s hard to help them when you’re looking down on them. Once you get down there and see how they’re making it, then you can appreciate what they’re trying to get accomplished.
How are you going to best remember John Chaney and John Thompson?
They had the guts to stand up and say what was right. I admire that in both of them. They were very strong, to me. They didn’t back down on fairness. John [Thompson] was the master of it, as was George and Chaney.
When I look back, I can say, ‘Thank you, man. Thank you that I came along the times that I had a chance to be your friend. Be able to fight against you, and to be able to fight with you.’