It's been a busy year for Coach John Chaney, what with teaching regular gym classes and leading Cheyney State's basketball team to the No. 1 national ranking in the NCAA's Division II.

Nonetheless, when Vivian Stringer, the women's coach, had an illness in the family, Chaney jumped right in and helped coach her team. The women didn't do quite as well as the men, only winding up No. 2 in the nation.

Wednesday, there was a small ceremony to honor the women's team that Stringer was unable to attend. She had been up all night with her 1 1/2-year-old, Janine, hospitalized since December with spinal meningitis.

Chaney sat in for her but asked not to be called to the stage. "I'd just cry if they called me up there," he said.

They called him up, anyway, to accept an award for his selflessness. He was five steps from the podium when his hand went up to wipe away the tears.

Welcome to life in Division II, where people cry real tears over real-life matters, where it's not so much who wins as who survives. It's as far as you can get from the tinsel and glitter of wealthy Division I.

Cheyney State, which plays at the University of the District of Columbia Saturday night in the Division II quarterfinals, sits forlornly in a dairy-farming valley 45 minutes west of Philadelphia. Athletic Director Ed Lawrence (also the sports information director and swimming teacher) gave perfect directions that concluded, "When you're sure you're lost, turn left. You're here."

Cheyney is descended from the oldest black public college in the nation. It opened in 1837 as Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth. The name has changed a couple of times but one thing has never changed.

"No money," said Chaney.

"We're poor!", laughed Lawrence. "We owe everybody."

Just like real life.

The thing that boggles the minds of people at Cheyney and elsewhere in Division II is all the cash--mostly from television--floating around just a division away.

For example, the 48 teams selected for the first round of the Division I basketball tournament will receive about $125,000 apiece for that game. The loot goes up for the survivors in their next engagements.

By contrast Cheyney State, the best Division II team in the nation, runs its entire basketball program on $16,000 to $17,000 a year. For postseason play, the NCAA used to guarantee transportation costs plus $25 apiece in per diem expenses for players and coaches. This year, the per diem guarantee was dropped.

For lack of funds there has never been a scholarship athlete on the Cheyney State basketball team. Yet in the last 17 years, Cheyney has won the Eastern regionals eight times, the state conference 12 times and the national title once, in 1978-79.

How do they do it? Federal and state grants help, said Chaney. Then there are bank loans. He pointed to his players on the practice floor, one by one. "Bank loan," he said. "Bank loan, bank loan, bank loan, bank loan."

That the NCAA might consider dispersing some of its TV money to Division II and III programs is not within the realm of possibility, according to Lawrence, who is on the 22-member NCAA executive council.

"Look at their (Division I) expenses," he said. "A big school can give 100 football scholarships. Say $5,000 apiece for them; that's a half-million dollars right there before you even talk about other expenses. They feel like they've earned what they make.

"No," said Lawrence, "the money is there at that level and they're going to keep it. It's a reflection of our society. The rich get richer . . ."

Who goes to a place like Cheyney to play basketball? The smallest starter this year is 6 feet 5; at forward is 6-9 all-America George Melton. Yet each player is somehow flawed. Otherwise, he'd never have come here.

"We're an attraction to youngsters who have an adverse situation," said Chaney, who has been coaching here a decade. "Either they were a second choice at a Division I school, or they didn't have the 2.0 high school grade average Division I schools require, or they were from a ghetto background or from a small town with no visibility, or their skills weren't polished yet.

"If they didn't have some problem and they could play they'd have been serenaded and recruited to death by Division I, and right now they'd be looking down their noses at Division II."

So Chaney looks for the players who fall through the cracks.

"We have two kinds," he said, "the ones that are going to college to find something--they don't know what--and the ones who just have to get away from where they were, which was my situation. I didn't know what I wanted but I sure knew what I didn't want--the life in South Philly with the rats and the roaches."

And Chaney firmly believes that part of his team's success comes from the players' long acquaintance with adversity. "They rise from it," he said. "Dissect the team. There's just two players out there who have both a mom and a pop."

Cheyney State's record is 28-2. On Saturday, the Wolves come to Washington to play 22-5 UDC. The winner will go to the four-team Division II finals in Springfield, Mass.

Presumably UDC has a home-court edge. It doesn't scare the Wolves, who played 21 of 30 games this year on the road. Why? Because they draw better at other people's gyms. About 1,000 fans come to see the Wolves at home in the Pennsylvania farm country--a third of capacity. When they travel, the arenas are packed with folks eager to see No. 1.

"We don't have the money to bring the good schools here," said Chaney, "so to keep a good schedule we have to travel." Host schools pick up expenses for the crowd-drawing Cheyney squad.

The less said about Cheyney's eye-assaulting physical education facilities the better. The school is a victim of declining enrollment, down from a high of about 2,500 a decade ago to less than 2,000.

The gym floor is streaked with dirt. There's no one to change the lights when they burn out. The soccer field slopes. The pool goes all but unused. Players have to walk past classrooms after practice to get to the showers.

Chaney, who at age 50 bears a startling resemblance to baseball star Reggie Jackson, said the school's circumstances are not uncommon in Division II. While he acknowledges that Division I will never give up a piece of its television golden egg, he feels there are small things the NCAA could do to help.

For example: "They could flash the Division II and III standings on television during halftime of the big Division I games. They could take the Division II and III finals to the same site as Division I and play them as preliminaries. I'd sure pay $100 to see three national championships."

Or the NCAA could seek corporate backing for the lower divisions. What really drives Chaney crazy is at the end of a big-time college TV game when some giant corporation donates a $1,000 scholarship to the winning team in the name of the game MVP.

"What in the hell does Notre Dame need with another $1,000?" he wonders.

Only about 30 people came to the tribute for the women's team. After the college president spoke and a student read a poem and the players were introduced, a Father Smith led the benediction.

Before the prayer, he called for a song. "Put your hands together and let's sing, 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.' "

So this curious little band began to sing, city folks in a farm field led in a country spiritual by a Catholic priest. On the third verse, he sang out, "He's got the little baby, Janine, in His hands . . ."

And more than one pair of eyes welled with tears.

Just like real life.