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SEC 40/40: Chancellor Went from Cotton Picker to Hall of Famer

3141 days ago
Ron Higgins | SEC Digital Network
Photo: SEC Digital Network

Once upon a time in 1966, Van Chancellor was a 22-year-old eighth grade boys basketball coach at Noxapater (Miss.) High who also taught five math classes and coached football and track for a tidy annual salary of $4,800.

This past winter, Van Chancellor was a 68-year old volunteer eighth grade boys basketball coach at University High in Baton Rouge where his salary was a hearty handshake and a pat on the back.

"I'm back where I started," Van says with a laugh. "Coaching eighth grade boys basketball."

Now, if you had no clue about the 46 years in between Van's eighth-grade coaching gigs, you can conclude either he loves coaching eighth graders or he never had the ambition to ever coach anything but on the junior high level.

But this is the same Van Chancellor that's in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, that won four WNBA titles as coach of the Houston Comets, that coached the 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning women's team, that spent 23 years as a SEC women's head coach (19 at Ole Miss, four at LSU), that coached in 17 NCAA tournaments with a Final Four appearance and four trips to the regional finals, that had 18 20-win seasons (15 at Ole Miss, three at LSU), and that won Mississippi girls high school championships.

And the same Van Chancellor that went 25-2 this season as a University High eighth grade boys coach.

"We won the year-end tournament," Van says proudly. "Got to coach my 14-year-old grandson Nick. Of course, I got the grandma (Van's wife Betty) telling me I need to let the grandson shoot a little more. And I heard from my other 10-year-old grandson Zach, who watches a lot of ESPN and thinks he knows everything, and he wondered how I managed to lose two games."

That was the extent of Van's coaching this past season, and for someone supposedly retired from coaching, it suits him just fine. He's enjoying his grandkids like never before.

He has also been able to dabble again in TV work, getting analyst assignments for SEC and Southland Conference regular season games and for the SEC tournament recently in Nashville.

"It was so great to get back into the SEC arenas, because the league has meant so much to me," Van says. "People around the league have always been super to me. When I went to Alabama this year and lost my media credential, this nice lady who was a guard said, `Hey Coach, don't worry about needing a pass. Every worker here knows you. Go where you want to go.' "

Staying in touch with the conference he coached in for 23 years, seeing some of his long-time coaching buddies like Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Georgia's Andy Landers, eased Van into retirement.

"You miss coaching mostly when preseason practice starts and when the postseason tournaments start," Van says. "But by the same token, I've really enjoyed what I've been doing - coaching eighth grade basketball and a little TV work."

If there is anybody who can walk away with no regrets from the glare of a major college or pro coaching spotlight, it's Van. Here's someone who grew up picking cotton in Mississippi with the dream to become men's basketball coach at Mississippi State, where graduated from in 1965, and he ends up winning an Olympic gold medal, going twice to the White House to meet two different U.S. Presidents and gets elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame.

That's called emptying the bucket list.

Van started coaching girls basketball as a high school coach at Horn Lake (Miss.) High, because he didn't want teach classes. For more than a decade at Horn Lake and then at Harrison (Miss.) Central High, Van built an impressive resume as a boys and girls coach.

When Ole Miss went shopping for a new women's coach in 1978, Van couldn't believe he got a call from then-Rebels' athletic director Warner Alford seeking an interview.

"I'll always be grateful to Warner, because in one of the gutsiest coaching moves you'll ever see, he hired a high school coach with no Ole Miss ties and no political pull to coach women's basketball," Van says.

"When Warner first called me, I wasn't crazy about the idea. My daddy told me I didn't need to go into women's basketball. But my wife said we should go to Oxford to visit and make it a second honeymoon."

So the Chancellors went to Oxford for a look-see. Finally Alford sat down with the Chancellors, a bit frustrated with Van's lack of enthusiasm.

"So Warner turns to my wife says, `Why can't I hire this boy?' " Van says. "And she says, `You haven't talked to him about the two most important things to him. No. 1 is who cleans up the gym (because Van always had to do that in high school). No. 2 is what classes does he have to teach.'

"Warner laughed and said, `We have people who clean the gym ands turn off the lights. And this is the SEC - coaches don't have to teach classes.'

"So I immediately lowered my asking price from $20,000 a year to $18,500. I didn't want to price myself out of a job."

By Van's fourth year at Ole Miss, he began a streak of 11 straight NCAA tourney bids, including four Elite Eights and three Sweet 16 appearances. His secret was that he coached women the same way he coached men - tough and relentless, because he expected his underdog teams to play that way.

For instance in 1992, in its first practice after the Lady Rebels beat defeated No. 2 and then defending national champion Tennessee in overtime, Van ran his team hard so hard that Van's daughter, Renee, then a Lady Rebel senior guard injured her ankle during the workout.

Afterwards, she declared, ''Dad, you are absolutely impossible to play for - let them (her teammates) go in (to end practice).''

Van loved that '92 team that finished 29-3 as an Elite Eight team.

"That team may have been the best I had at Ole Miss," Van says. "They gave me everything they had. I discovered girls played extremely hard and had no egos."

At the end of 1996-97 season, with his 20th year at Ole Miss just ahead, Van, at age 53, decided to shed his Lady Rebels security blanket. On April 29, 1997, he resigned to accept a job as the head coach of the Houston Comets in the then-fledgling WNBA.

"I just felt I could go as far as I could go at Ole Miss," Van says. "I didn't think I could get over the hump (make it to the Final Four) there. And I guess I was looking for a new challenge."

He got one with the Comets, getting the job after Louisiana Tech's Leon Barmore and Vanderbilt's Jim Foster couldn't be lured away from their schools.

It didn't even bother Van that on his first day with the Comets, he had just two towels for his entire team. Or that he kept the team's equipment in his apartment for the longest time, because there was no place to store it. Or that his thick, drawling Mississippi accent didn't quite connect with his Brazlian forward Janeth Arcain. Or that his best player, Sheryl Swoopes, had the start of her season delayed, because she was delivering a baby.

Truth is, Van had the time of his life. All he had to do was coach. He didn't have to recruit. Just coach.

"It was like I was back at Ole Miss in the 1980s with those teams that listened to you and wanted to play,'' Van says. "We sold them (his Comets' players) on the fact they were carrying the dream of every 8-year-old girl.

"When I took that pro job, I felt like I was 30 years old again. I was up at 6 in the morning almost every day, ready to roll. I knew that anytime you leave home on a new adventure, there's going to be a lot of uncertainties. But in my mind, it was either take that once-in-a-lifetime chance or sit and watch it go by. I took it and it rekindled my coaching career."

He coached 10 years with the Comets, won the first four league championships, including 1998 when his team won 27 of 30 games in the regular season and went 4-1 in the playoffs.

Van's pro success earned him a shot a coaching the 2004 Olympic team that went 24-0 (including 16 pre-Olympic exhibitions) and won the gold medal.

Kevin Cook, who was an unemployed University of Houston assistant when he convinced Van to hire him as Comets' assistant, once explained Van's multi-layered coaching brilliance.

"A key for him was to get to know the players, to take time to play cards with them so he got to know their families, their personalities, what makes them tick," Cook said of Van. "In the offseason, I saw him take the time to call each player and see how they were doing. He wouldn't even talk basketball with them. He was one of the greatest coaches I've seen at meshing players' egos and philosophies.

"Coach Chancellor also was great at Xs and Os, a great in-game strategist who could make adjustments. But he let his players paint a picture offensively. He'd keep everything simple, and he let them be artists. Everybody in our league knew what we were going to run, but he knew great players would make great plays. He never limited them in that situation.

"He was at his best late in games. He would relax and then his players would relax. I've heard Coach say, 'When it's time to work nobody outworks me and when it's time to goof off, nobody outgoofs me.'"

The thing about Van is he can't goof off for too long. There's got to be something next. So when resigned from the Comets on Jan. 3, 2007 at age 63, his plan was a steady diet of TV work and golf.

"I was off three months and I was doing nothing," Van recalls. "I still had a ton of energy. I still felt good. But I didn't feel fulfilled. I needed a challenge in life."

Then in one magical week in April of that year, it all fell into place for Van. He was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, he got hired by LSU, a school with almost unlimited resources and nine returning seniors on a team that had just been to its fourth straight Final Four.

"This was one of those, 'My God, we can hire him?' " remembers then-LSU athletic director Skip Bertman of the pain-free hiring of Van. "This was pretty easy."

Van got the Tigers back to the Final Four again in 2007-08, his first season. That team went 31-6 overall, won the SEC with a 14-0 record and lost 47-46 to Tennessee in the Final Four semi-finals on a last-second putback.

"We came within one rebound of playing for the national championship," Van says. "But it was still the greatest feeling for me to have the ball up by six points in the regional finals against North Carolina in the final seconds knowing that I was finally going to get a chance to coach a Final Four team."

Van lost almost that entire Final Four team to graduation the next season, and though he says he recruited "harder the last few years at LSU than I ever did at Ole Miss," he couldn't get the team back to championship level.

When he retired at the end of the 2010-11 season a year ago, he never had second thoughts about returning to college coaching from the pros.

"This may sound strange to you, but I wanted to go back to college coaching and make a difference in young people's lives," Van says. "In the pros, you can't make a difference in a person's life very much. In college, you can make a difference.

"My first year at LSU, our center Sylvia Fowles, would hug my neck and say, 'Coach, I'm glad to see you.' You don't get that a lot in pro ball."

Now, Van gets hugs from his grandkids thrilled they finally have their grandpa full-time. Van hadn't planned to coach at all this past season until older grandson Nick asked if he could coach his eighth grade team.

Imagine the surprise of University High varsity coach Joe Spencer when he got a call from a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer asking if could coach the eighth grade team for free.

"I told him I would coach exactly the way he told me to coach," Van says.

"When I got the job, I called my son John who's a high school basketball coach in Crosby, Texas. I said, `John, what do you teach in eighth grade basketball? I forgot.' He said, `Daddy, you work on dribbling. He sent me some dribbling drills.' My daughter Renee had been a high school coach and she came to practice to help.

"Every day, younger grandson Zach would come to practice to watch Nick. On the way home, Zach would tell Nick what he should have been doing how I was miscoaching Nick. We'd stop at Buffalo Wild Wings for a snack and Zach would break it down for me."

Van can't remember the last time he had more fun in coaching.

"It was a joy to coach Nick, but we had a great group of kids," Van says. "They did everything I asked them to do.

"Seems like most of my teams have been that way my whole career. Let me tell you, the good Lord has blessed this ol' boy in more ways than I could have ever imagined."