Life hasn’t been easy for Huey Futch. A one-time high school basketball phenom, Futch grew up in a poor Miami neighborhood and was the product of a broken home. But his senior year was especially trying.
Over the summer of that year, his aunt passed away. Futch’s aunt had raised him since his mother’s passing when he was four years old. Then, in the fall, Hurricane Andrew devastated his Miami home, leaving him shuffling between his older brother’s house and living on his own.
Making matters worse for Futch was his poor SAT scores. Interest from top basketball programs began to wither away. Kentucky backed out. So did Southern California and Alabama.
But one program remained faithful. In fact, it was so faithful that the program’s coach personally visited Futch during the player’s trying times.
That coach was John Chaney.
“He showed the most interest and the most respect,” Futch said. “He knew my situation. He told me ‘A lot of kids who come to my program have similar situations.'”
Futch was one of numerous recruits who fell into the category of Proposition 48, which determined the athletic eligibility of freshmen using grade point average and standardized test scores. Chaney gave Futch and many others like him an opportunity at Temple. Some of these recruits, as well as others, were the products of broken homes or poor neighborhoods. Where other programs saw risks, Chaney saw opportunity.
Chaney had grown up poor himself. He endured the hardship of getting few chances in life because of his minority status. Sam Brown, a white basketball coach at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, gave Chaney a chance that seemed almost impossible: to get an education and to play college basketball. Chaney felt he owed it to other players to do the same, because he understood the difficulties they were facing.
“Most of the players here looked at John as a father figure,” former point guard Howie Evans said. “Going in, you may not feel that way, but when you leave school, you’re going to say, ‘Well, dang, if I didn’t make the pros or anything like that, I learned a lot from the man, [like] life skills.'”
Chaney instilled a system of ‘tough love’ for his players. He would knock them down. He would curse at them. He would call them out if they made mistakes – on or off the basketball court. Yet his players understood that he did this to make them better players and better people.
“He’ll curse you out, [and] let you know everything you’re doing wrong,” current Temple guard Dustin Salisbery said. “But that’s just his way of trying to prepare you for bigger and better things. You should be worried when he’s not cursing you out. That means he’s given up on you.”
Chaney’s coaching style hadn’t changed over his 24 years at Temple. Salisbery received the same treatment as Kevin Clifton, who played during Chaney’s earliest seasons at Temple.
“In practice he would curse you out if you made mistakes and if you did things wrong,” Clifton said. “But he would always say, ‘It’s not you that I’m cursing at, it’s the things you do.’ So you appreciated that later on in life.”
Chaney’s players knew the same hard-nosed, foul-mouthed coach also had a soft side.
“He’s the same person who will curse at you all week long and be that same person, who, when you go into his office, he’ll put his arms around you,” Futch said.
And his office door was always open to talk about personal struggles.
“When I was [at Temple] my mom raised me,” Clifton said. “I would always talk to him about things that I wanted to get off my chest. So his door was always open.”
Futch visited that office frequently during his first season at Temple. He was battling homesickness and struggling to adapt to Chaney’s famed early-morning practices. Chaney told him he had to “toughen up and adapt to your environment.”
It was advice that prepared Chaney’s players for life after basketball. Chaney had stressed that few players would have the opportunity for a basketball career. He pushed for them to finish their degrees and start preparing for a career outside basketball.
“It was beat into our heads that you’re not going to [the NBA], to the point where, if you don’t, you’re prepared for it,” Futch said.
Even the few players who made the pros got the message. Aaron McKie and Eddie Jones, who led Temple to the Elite 8 in 1993, set up the John Chaney Endowment Scholarship Fund, which provides full academic scholarships to promising students with financial woes.
“[Chaney] has done a lot of good for a lot of kids, and Eddie and Aaron are a show of that,” former assistant coach Jay Norman said. “A lot of the kids [Chaney] has recruited, he has become their father because of it. That’s what it’s all about. You take a kid, you console him, you kick him and you push him. And you do that to get him to the point where he can graduate. That’s what [Chaney] has done and that’s what it’s all about.”
Though Chaney spoke highly of classroom education during his tenure at Temple, he also took the time to teach his own lesson plans. Sometimes at great lengths. Chaney opened his retirement press conference with the same phrase he said he had used to open many practices: “I’m going to be lengthy.”
His players knew what that meant. They weren’t going to be touching a basketball anytime soon.
Practices were full of life lessons that always related to basketball. Chaney might have said, ‘The more you turn the ball over, the less chance you have at being successful,’ or ‘In life, just like in basketball, don’t dribble the ball into a corner.’ ‘How you start is how you finish,’ and so on.
Those lessons stuck with some of his former players well after their Temple careers.
“My wife tells me ‘You’re always on time,'” Evans said. “And I say ‘That’s how I was taught.’ … That’s one of the things I learned from being under John Chaney: Just to be on time. She hates it, but, at the same time, she loves it because I help us as a family get to where we need to go.”
Others have passed on Chaney’s lessons.
“The same principles that I learned here in practice, I transfer to my team,” said Clifton, who coaches a youth basketball team in Philadelphia. “So my son hears it constantly on the basketball court. No turnovers. Protect the ball, same thing.”
Futch also wants to pass along what Chaney taught him. Futch recently started a youth basketball academy with Richard Kohn, who he considers a father figure. Futch met Kohn after Hurricane Andrew struck Florida, and Kohn provided financial and emotional support.
“I always wanted to work with kids in some kind of way, but this is perfect,” Futch said.
At some point, Futch said he is going to ask Chaney to join the basketball academy’s board of directors. He also wants advice on how to teach the game.
Nearly 10 years removed from Temple’s program, Futch is still seeking lessons from that wise old Owl.
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.