John Chavis isn’t talking this week.
Really, that’s not all that unusual for the man known as “Chief” around the SEC football world. He’s never been a big talker, especially when it comes to mugging for the cameras.
He’s as old school as old school can get and would rather be on the practice field or in the film room than he would talking to the media.
And getting him to talk this week? You’d have a better chance of scoring against his LSU defense.
Yes, it’s Tennessee. Yes, it’s his first trip back to Neyland Stadium since being unceremoniously pushed out along with Phillip Fulmer and the rest of the Vols’ coaches following the 2008 season.
And, yes, Chavis’ blood still boils when he thinks about all that he invested at his alma mater and all that the Vols accomplished on his watch as defensive coordinator … and then how it all came crashing down.
But Chavis doesn’t want Saturday’s game to be about him. That’s not his style, and that’s why the only thing you’re going to get from him this week concerning what this game means to him is one of his customary grunts.
Still, it means plenty, especially with it being in Knoxville.
Chavis, who walked on at Tennessee as a middle guard and later earned a scholarship, also worked his way up through the coaching ranks to become the Vols’ defensive coordinator in 1995. He held that position for 14 years and refused to go anywhere else despite several lucrative NFL offers coming his way. Former South Carolina coach Lou Holtz also tried to hire him away.
But Chavis’ roots were too deeply dug in at Tennessee, and those who know him best will tell you that he’s as loyal as he is stubborn.
So when Fulmer and his longtime staff were sent packing after a national championship, two SEC championships and five trips to the SEC championship game in their 16 full seasons together, nobody took it harder than Chavis.
To this day, he has a hard time talking about how it all ended, but he’s also grounded enough and secure enough in his new career at LSU that he’s moved on.
“I’m sure there will be some emotion for John. That is only natural,” Fulmer said of Chavis’ return to Neyland Stadium. “But John is the ultimate professional and has always attempted to prepare his defensive teams to play at a high level … regardless of who they play.”
Chavis not only has this LSU defense playing at a high level. He has the No. 1-ranked Tigers playing at a championship level, and it’s reminiscent of the way his 1998 national championship defense at Tennessee played.
LSU is ranked fifth nationally in total defense, allowing 254 yards per game. The Tigers lead the SEC with 48 tackles for loss and have given up just eight touchdowns in six games.
It’s also an LSU defense that’s still young. Of the 22 on the defensive two-deep, 13 are sophomores or younger.
And with this being the third year in Chavis’ system, the players are playing faster, more instinctively and with fewer errors than they did a year ago when the Tigers finished 11th nationally in scoring defense and 12th nationally in total defense.
“This might not be the most talented defense I’ve been on,” LSU senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. “But as far as communication, playing together and everybody being on the same page, this has to be one of the best defenses I’ve ever been on, and a lot of that has to do with coach Chavis.”
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t waste much time going after Chavis when Chavis was cut loose following that 2008 season. Clemson was also hot on Chavis’ trail, but Miles was able to lure him to Baton Rouge.
Georgia’s Mark Richt made a run at Chavis two years ago, but LSU answered with a raise, taking Chavis to $700,000 annually. Texas also showed some interest in Chavis this past offseason.
Miles says Chavis has been “really what we needed” and isn’t about to let him get away.
Miles also has a feeling what will be going through Chavis’ mind when he walks into Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s hard for me to talk for John, but anybody that knows him knows that he has such a grand heart, and he’s so loyal,” Miles said. “I can remember playing against his defenses when I was at LSU, and you felt his presence across the field. … John will want that defense to play well.”
Baker said Chavis hasn’t said a word this week to the defense about this game carrying any special meaning for him.
“He’s too much of a field general for that,” Baker said. “He’s about playing hard and playing with passion every time you go out.”
That said, Baker said the LSU players have taken it on themselves to make sure Chavis’ return is one he’ll remember for all the right reasons.
“We actually talked about it as a team,” Baker said. “We know coach Chavis spent the majority of his coaching life at Tennessee, and we want to get this one for him. He deserves it.”