Mike Vreeswyk calls John Chaney once a month at least, and there are particular days when he makes sure to. Jan. 21, for instance. That’s Chaney’s birthday. On his most recent one, he turned 86. Oct. 15, too. That was traditionally the date of Temple’s first preseason practice, and Vreeswyk never forgets to touch base then. And there’s one more, though the exact date changes from one year to the next: At the start of every NCAA tournament, Vreeswyk just feels it’s right to hear his old coach’s voice.
“The conversation is always lively,” he said, and it’s lively in a way that only a conversation with John Chaney can be. That is, most of it is loud and insightful and sentimental and one-way.
That’s all right. Vreeswyk, 51, wouldn’t want anything about Chaney or their talks to change. But over time, he had to admit, something about them did: his perspective on them.
It has been 30 years since Chaney’s best and most memorable team at Temple carried a 32-1 record and the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed into the East Regional final, into the Meadowlands and a matchup with second-seeded Duke. Those Owls had freshman star Mark Macon, a shot-blocking power forward in Tim Perry, a cool and steady point guard in Howard Evans, and Vreeswyk, a 6-foot-7 junior who wore an Indiana-style brush cut and a Boogie Nights-style mustache and was second on the team in scoring (16.6 points per game) and made nearly 40 percent of his three-point shots that season. And those Owls led Duke by three at halftime before everything fell apart.
The final score was 63-53. Some aspects of the day are more widely remembered than others, but all of them, for Vreeswyk, are hard. Macon had become a national sensation early that season, and Chaney tried to protect him and the rest of the team, to keep the postgame locker room from devolving into a mad scene around an 18-year-old kid. Only Evans and Vreeswyk, he declared, would be available to the media after each game. But then Macon shot 6-for-29 against Duke – a senior captain for the Blue Devils named Billy King hounding him all game – and he dissolved into tears after the loss, cameras capturing it all.
Vreeswyk himself played no better. His box score line had an ugly symmetry: 1-for-6 on two-point shots, 1-for-6 on three-point shots, six points. Aesthetically, his performance matched his stats. He banked in both of his makes from near the top of the key.
“Shattered dreams,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I felt like we were in quicksand. We just couldn’t get anything going.”
As is usually the case in such matters, no one knew then just how rare that Temple team was or its opportunity would be. With a victory Sunday over Texas Tech, Villanova will go to the Final Four for the second time in three years and the third time in 10. But it is only recently that the Wildcats have established the Final Four as a realistic annual goal for themselves and not merely a dream, and that expectation shows the height to which Jay Wright has lifted his program. Villanova is atop a skyscraper, and the rest of the Big Five and Drexel are specks on the street. Since the 1979 Penn Quakers, no city team other than Villanova has advanced to the Final Four, and just two have entered an Elite Eight game as the higher seed.
The 2004 St. Joseph’s Hawks were one. The 1988 Owls were the other, and though Chaney coached Temple to four more appearances in the Elite Eight, those runs were relative surprises, his trademark matchup-zone defense confounding the right opponents at the right times. In none of them were the Owls seeded better than sixth in their region. They were the underdog every time.
It was that context that changed how Vreeswyk thought about 1988 and his relationship with Chaney. He had been a prodigy at Morrisville High School in Bucks County. One night in a summer league tournament in Conshohocken, he scored 25 points in the first half against a team full of Division I recruits, and Chaney left the gym then and there, dashed to a payphone, and called Vreeswyk’s father to tell him, I need to get into your house to talk to you and your son.
“When he came in,” Vreeswyk said, “it was as if he was family, and he spoke from the heart.”
Chaney had him from then on. In the immediate aftermath of the Duke loss, Vreeswyk acknowledged, his disappointment was concentrated on what he and his teammates had failed to do. They had believed, known, they would win a national championship, and they would not. As years passed, though, whenever he remembered ’88, he grew wistful not because his team had not reached the Final Four, but because his coach hadn’t.
“Absolutely,” he said. “He was relevant. He did get all-America players, maybe not as much as the blue bloods, but he had a certain style. No one wanted to play Temple. If he had ended up winning a national championship, it wouldn’t have surprised anybody. But I really believe this: To him, it doesn’t define him. For him, it was more about developing young men into grown men and teaching some lessons along the way.”
In 2016, not long after Kris Jenkins hit that buzzer-beater against North Carolina, the 1987-88 Temple Owls were inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame. Chaney could not attend the ceremony. Vreeswyk spoke on the team’s behalf. The first thing he said was that he had called Chaney earlier that afternoon and talked to him for a half-hour.
“He’s still bouncing off the walls about what Villanova did,” he said then.
They might have a similar conversation soon. Not much will have changed. Not the important things, anyway.