Next weekend, Cheyney University will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its 1978 NCAA basketball championship by honoring the team that made history. But that celebration will be no real celebration. And that honoring will be no real honoring. That’s because it’ll be nothing more than a five minute shout-out during intermission between the women’s game and the men’s game against Kutztown University in Cheyney’s Cope Hall on February 17 at 2:30 p.m.
But that ain’t good enough. This history-making team deserves to be celebrated and honored in a much more respectable and prominent manner. And it must happen on March 18, which is the exact date of its 1978 victory.
There were 32 teams in the Division II Men’s Basketball Tournament 40 years ago. They competed in a single elimination series that was capped with the championship game in Springfield, Mo. pitting two powerhouses, Cheyney State College (as it was known then) and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
And then, on March 18, 1978, the Cheyney Wolves made history by doing for the school what had never been done before. It brought home a national championship.
Cheyney’s Andrew “Dip” Fields, who went on to have a successful professional basketball career, was named the tournament’s MVP. In a recent interview, he told me, “The key to the team’s success was not me. It was the tough love discipline of Coach John Chaney. We could not have won without him.” Fields also said the fans were instrumental in the team’s victories. As he put it, “Just like the Eagles’ fans supported that team during this season by not only attending home games in Philly but also by traveling to hostile stadiums, many Cheyney students, faculty members, and staff persons attended games in Cope Hall and traveled to hostile athletic centers, cheering nonstop even during the few losses we had.”
Another essential member of the team was Roger “Bird” Leysath who, during his interview with me got choked up reminiscing about his team and began shedding tears when he stated, “Our championship season was the direct result of buying into Coach Chaney’s plan. He taught us to support one another in victory and in defeat. He made us understand that we were a family.” This 6’ 8”, 185-pound forward was transformed by Coach Chaney from a Dr. J-type baller into a dominating center who became a notorious rebounder and shot-blocker. And this successful security firm founder and CEO concluded by saying, “I am who I am today because of that championship team, because of Coach Chaney, and because of Cheyney State College.”
An additional key ingredient in that historic team was Arthur “Sugar Bear” Stone. During his interview, he explained that championship season to me this way: “The secret to our success was discipline, talent, heart, and teamwork.” He said discipline was at the top of the list because, as a former North Philly gang-banger, he was out of control until Coach Chaney got him in line. But the Coach didn’t try to stop Stone’s tough guy bravado. Instead, he harnessed it by transforming him into the team’s effective trash-talking enforcer similar to the way Rick Mahorn used to play. Stone, like all the players I spoke with, gave the credit for the team’s success primarily to Coach Chaney. But he went even further by proclaiming, “I was a wild kid in the hood headed to the prison yard or the graveyard. But Coach Chaney and Cheyney State College saved my life.”
Another key teammate was the 6’ 5’, 210-pound defensive wizard Gerald “Mo” Mills who, during his interview, informed me that, “Unity was the reason for our championship. We all stayed in the same dorm on the same floor. We were and still are family after four decades. We developed a lifelong bond.” He, like the others, credited the coach by pointing out that “Coach Chaney was a genuine father figure to me after my biological father died when I was only 17.” And he had even more praise for the coach as a result of him coming to court for Mills after Mills had made a “dumb kid mistake” and got arrested. He said “Coach told the judge he’d be personally responsible for keeping me on track. And the judge was so impressed with Coach’s passion that he released me into Coach’s custody. I never broke the law again in my life.” He, like Stone, said “Coach saved my life.”
Along with Fields, Leysath, Stone, and Mills, all of the other members of that history-making team were absolutely necessary to winning the championship and they all will be featured in part two of this series.
But I can’t end part one without acknowledging the man who made all this possible: Coach John Chaney. During his interview, the first thing he said 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 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and College Hall of Fame inductee and a man who has a .704 winning percentage, eight Atlantic Ten Season Championships, eight Elite Eight appearances, six Atlantic Ten Tournament Championships, five Atlantic Ten Coach of the Year Awards, a National Association of Basketball Coaches Award, an Olympics Games appearance, and a Division II National Championship. And the first thing he does is to humbly praise Cheyney State College. What a coach! What a man!
In part two of this series, there will be much more from Coach Chaney along with all the other “Hoop Psi Phi” championship team members.
In the meantime, I’m reaching out to the university’s Council of Trustees, the university President, the National Alumni Association, the C Club, university fraternities and sororities, and all other Cheyney-related entities so we can raise funds to organize a respectable and prominent celebration to honor our historic national champions on their 40th anniversary on March 18.
On behalf of Heeding Cheyney’s Call, I’ll donate the first $1,000 to jumpstart this initiative. To assist in this effort, contact us at HeedingCheyneysCall@gmail.com.
Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1-FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.