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Throwback Thursday: The Time John Chaney Threatened to Kill John Calipari

The Atlantic-10 Conference of the 1980s was a heated place.
February 11, 2016, 3:15pm

When the other coach says something not nice. Photo by Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports.

On February 13, 1994, the Temple Owls traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts to play the University of Massachusetts Minutemen. It was a nationally-televised conference game between two rivals chasing both the Atlantic 10 crown and a national title. Though Temple curried favor in the national polls at No. 8, No. 13 Massachusetts held a two-game lead in the conference. With his team down a point with three seconds remaining, UMass guard Mike Williams sank an eight-footer to put the Minutemen up 56-55, which ended up being the final score.

The game featured plenty of banging and bruising, active bodies clogging the lane and enough swinging elbows to leave even the crowd and the millions watching at home sore. But the enduring confrontation came well after the final buzzer and featured the teams' head coaches, UMass' John Calipari and Temple's John Chaney. In retrospect, it may have been a long time in the offing.

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"There was a rivalry between the two schools and two coaches at the time about as fierce as any nationally," said Marty Dobrow, author of Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball. "Calipari was this ferocious competitor on the way up within the little speck of the world, the Atlantic-10. Temple had for a long time ruled the roost. You got a sense in the years leading up that UMass is on the rise. The games were getting closer and closer."

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Indeed, Temple had a stranglehold on the A-10 for a number of years, including victories in the first 21 games of the Owls-Minutemen series. It was a rivalry much in the way that a bowling ball has a rivalry with the pins. But everything changed with the 1988 hiring of then-29-year old John Calipari, who was coming off stints as an assistant coach at Kansas and Pittsburgh. It wasn't long before the also-ran Minutemen became a spectacle in their own right.

"All of a sudden UMass was one of the best teams in the country," said Ron Chimelis, who was covering the UMass beat for The Republican in nearby Springfield. "I think I appreciate it more now than I did then. Everything was a big deal. There were a lot of people who came from Boston who hadn't cared and don't care now about UMass to watch and cover the games."

The Minutemen were tenacious and intense, a combination that made them one of college basketball's burgeoning powerhouses. In that respect, they were the perfect foil for the Owls. And despite the obvious surface-level disparities—age, skin color, points in their careers—the two head coaches shared plenty in common besides their first names and initials. Both are mesmerizing speakers. Calipari can still deliver a soundbite with the best of them; I once listened from just a few feet away as Chaney delivered a spellbinding soliloquy on, of all things, sandwiches during a coaches' clinic ahead of his Hall of Fame Induction. They both preached defense. And their gritty similarities manifested themselves in their teams.

"These two teams really emerged as national forces in a league where there weren't national forces," said Dobrow, who was covering the team at the time for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. "It was hard-fought defensive struggle. Every pass was contested mightily."

It was only fitting, then, that the game was decided by the smallest of margins.

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Dan Wetzel, now a columnist at Yahoo! Sports was then a senior at the University of Massachusetts, and was covering the game for the student newspaper. He still remembers the scene in the press room that night.

"Chaney comes in and gives this eloquent testimony about the team," he said. "He always called them 'Mass,' never 'UMass.' 'Mass was tough, Mike Williams' shot was great.' He talked about how [UMass] can go to Final Four and how it's great for the league. He could not have been more positive."

Dobrow recalls the scene differently.

"Chaney went first, summoning some very throaty, begrudging respect," he said. "You could tell though that the loss was eating at him."

Then he left. In walked the victorious Calipari.

"Cal had spent everything," said Dobrow. "He's physically exhausted. He came in, gave credit to Temple. The room is jam packed. Shockingly, coming through back door is Chaney. Just a startling turn of events."

What ignited Chaney's ire was a brief interaction between Calipari and one of the three officials. According to a statement reprinted in Going Bigtime, then A-10 commissioner Ron Bertovich said, "One of the game officials exited the officials' locker room … Coach Calipari made one comment to the official and the official responded. The entire conversation lasted less than one minute and voices were never raised."

Somehow the Temple coach caught wind of this interaction.

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"He walks in [to the press room] and just starts blasting Cal," Wetzel said. "I'm thinking, 'Holy crap, this is fantastic.'

"You've got a good ball club," Chaney chirped, "but what you did with the officials out there is wrong. I won't be a party to that."

Calipari, still seated, responded, "You weren't out there, Coach. You don't have any idea."

Chaney's rant continued, and he tore into the officials:

"You don't say shit to officials without me being involved in it. You got a game that was given to you by the officials right here with GW (George Washington University) on three bad calls, okay? And you send your guys out there pushing and shoving. The guys did a hell of a job. You had the best officiating you could ever get here. And for you to ride them, I won't be a party to that. I just got my ass blasted for giving them hell down in West Virginia. And here you did a hell of a job riding them today. Three class guys, and you pick them out here and single them out - "

Calipari: "Hey Coach, Coach, I'm going to tell you something - "

"Shut up, God damn it!"

"You weren't there, Coach."

And then Chaney, having just defended the honor of the hardworking officials, charged:

"I'll kill you! You remember that. I'll kick your ass. Kick your ass! You've got a good team and you don't need that edge. That's why I told my kid to knock your fucking kid in the mouth!"

Wetzel can be seen in the lone video of the event, standing up, pen in hand, and unwittingly getting in the way of the shot.

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"It happened pretty quick and it was so volatile," he said. "I remember thinking it was so awesome. It was one of the reasons I became a sportswriter. I thought it was great."

When you have not only survived a death threat but also some weird sex scandals. Photo by Brett Davis-USA Today Sports

Although it can't be seen in the shot, Wetzel alleges, and Dobrow's book corroborates, that Williams, the game's hero, absorbed an open hand to the face when he and Minutemen point guard (and current UMass coach) Derek Kellogg restrained the 62-year-old Chaney with all their might.

"Lord knows what would have happened [if he got to Calipari]," Wetzel said.

The writers in attendance remain split on how much blame Chaney deserves for the outburst. Both Chimelis and Wetzel cite Calipari's proclivity to get in a ref's ear about calls, which, Chimelis said, "in a close game, a call or non-call can be the difference between a win and a loss."

"That's when you chill," Wetzel said of Calipari. "He was trying to win national title in February at UMass. It's not going to happen. It was a big win, but that's when you chill. You don't win a big game and then still complain to the refs."

Chimelis doesn't buy it.

"I put all of it on Chaney," he said.

In fact, after the altercation, Chimelis jumped on Route 91 South to Springfield believing that what had just transpired wasn't all that big of a deal.

"It didn't occur to me that it was a national story," he said. "That might sound insane. I got back to the office and only then did I see things coming over the newswire. It was then that I realized this was going to be more than just an unusual story. I did not leave the Mullins Center thinking that I witnessed history. I thought I just saw [Chaney] being a bad sport."

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In the age of social media, news immediacy, and hot takes, it's hard to infer how the moment would have been reported if it had happened today. In the wake of the altercation, Temple players are seen coming in, some half-dressed in towels, to help restrain their coach. Wetzel took off to the Temple locker room, where rumors like, "Coach just fought Calipari" circulated.

Chaney was suspended for one game, a considerably light sentence. He claimed the harshest rebuke came from his daughter and wife.

A few weeks later, the Minutemen headed into McGonigle Hall in Philadelphia to finish the season series. In a game that was also fiercely contested and also won in the final seconds on a Mike Williams shot, the Temple fans were all over Calipari.

"The familiarity built an animosity that we don't get anymore," said Wetzel. "It's a different feel in the A-10, different feel on Tobacco Road. You played these teams twice, maybe three times, four years in a row. You could still drive to away games. It was a better time for college basketball."

Chimelis, however, is more solemn about the ramifications of Chaney's threats.

"There was a lot of nervousness about [Calipari's] personal safety in Philadelphia," he said. "There was tremendous security and legitimate concern something bad would happen. Thankfully it didn't."

When a man in a striped shirt is all that stands between you and your destiny.

In the ensuing years, Calipari would dip his toes into the NBA waters, only to return to college and finally capture an elusive national title in 2012 with Kentucky. Chaney would remain at Temple until his retirement in 2006, closing out 34 years in coaching. Both are now enshrined together in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, just a little over a half hour drive south on Route 91 from Calipari's former employer in Amherst.

In a 2012 Grantland interview, Chaney said the "discourse" between him and Calipari was "buried in the sand," and noted that, in an event at the Meadowlands, the two raised almost $50,000 toward defeating juvenile diabetes. According to a Temple University source, the two consider themselves friends. Both coaches refused comment for this story.

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"This was a stark and startling moment, but they did mend fences pretty well," said Dobrow. "[They] got to a very good place. They did some appearances together for good causes and genuinely have a deep respect [for one another]. Chaney had a tremendous respect for what Cal put together. I wouldn't say it was an isolated incident, and there wasn't some prickly moments, but there was a deep respect."

Twenty-two years after the event, Wetzel credits the incident with confirming his career choice. Dobrow, even as he "allowed for the fluidity of memory," recalls the event in its immediacy as "being bizarre." Chimelis looks back on the infamous incident with a tinge of incredulity.

"I covered UMass for 19 years and sports for much more than that, and I'd bet most people would put that in the top five events that I've covered," he said. "I never understood that. People are still fascinated. I was there and I was interested, but I'm more interested in why it's taken a life of it's own still to this day."

But he does admit that the circumstances that led to the fight were special. For one small speck of time, not far from where the sport was invented, the nation's eyes were trained on Western Massachusetts as the home of some of the most interesting basketball in the country.

"The games were tremendously compelling," he said. "Every possession, every game seemed to matter more than the last, and if you are a basketball fan, it was great."