John Chavis gives LSU's D cutting edge
NEW ORLEANS -- LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis isn't sure what he would be doing if he weren't coaching football.
"I honestly don't know, because as far back as I can remember, coaching football is all I've ever wanted to do," Chavis said. "Because of the impact so many of my coaches had on me, I wanted to be in the profession. I knew this was the direction I wanted to go."
So Chavis did what was ingrained in him while growing up in Dillon, S.C., as one of 10 children born to Cherokee Indian sharecroppers.
He put his head down and went to work every day to make his dream a reality.
It's a work ethic that has served him well during a decorated coaching career that will come full circle Monday night in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
Chavis, who has 17 seasons under his belt as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, will get a chance to win his second national championship. He was the defensive coordinator at Tennessee in 1998 when the Vols went 13-0 and won the first BCS national title.
"Any time you win one, whether it's your first or second, it's special," Chavis said. "It's what you work for in this profession year-round, and not just in the football season. Coach [Les] Miles has done an excellent job of pointing this program in that direction, and more importantly, he's established the expectation that we're going to be there every year competing for it."
Chavis, just as he was for Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee from 1995-2008, has been there for Miles every step of the way.
There was something missing on defense when Chavis arrived at LSU in 2009. The Tigers had talent but had lost their edge.
"John Chavis is just what we needed," Miles said. "The reason his defenses play with so much heart -- and I remember thinking the same thing when I was coaching against him -- was because of how much heart he puts into it. The players love playing for him, and that was obvious from the beginning.
John Chavis is just what we needed. The reason his defenses play with so much heart -- and I remember thinking the same thing when I was coaching against him -- was because of how much heart he puts into it. The players love playing for him, and that was obvious from the beginning.
--LSU coach Les Miles
"I knew once they had a chance to fully grasp his scheme that we were really going to have something."
Miles considers himself lucky to have even had a shot at Chavis, who was pushed out at his alma mater when Fulmer was fired after the 2008 season. Miles beat Clemson and Dabo Swinney to the punch.
"The thing about it is that I felt good about who I was," Chavis said. "I didn't look at it as being washed-up."
Chavis won the Broyles Award this season as the top assistant coach in the country. While at Tennessee, he was honored as the AFCA's national assistant coach of the year in 2006. In nine of his 14 seasons at Tennessee, his defenses ranked in the top three of the SEC in terms of total defense.
"He's the most determined and competitive person that I've had an opportunity to coach with," Fulmer said. "Even in spring practice, it was like we were playing for the SEC championship every day. When I promoted John in 1995, a lot of people didn't know John. But I knew what kind of coach he was from being an offensive coordinator and having to go against him every day."
The cornerstone of the Vols' 1998 national championship defense was linebacker Al Wilson, who went on to become a five-time Pro Bowler with the Denver Broncos.
Wilson has watched LSU play this season every chance he gets and says it brings back old memories to see the Tigers playing with so much passion and energy on defense.
"That's Chief [Chavis' nickname]," Wilson said. "His commitment to his players is unquestioned. As a player, you feel that. I was always one of those guys who said you didn't play for your coaches, that you played for your teammates.
"Well, Chief was one of those coaches you wanted to give it up for week in and week out, and it didn't matter who you were playing."
Chavis doesn't like to compare defenses, but Wilson says this LSU defense is even more talented than that 1998 Tennessee defense, which sent nine starters to the NFL.
"It doesn't hurt to have great athletes, but the key is getting the most out of those athletes and putting those athletes in the right positions," Wilson said. "The other thing that separates Chief from most coordinators is that he's fearless. He sticks to what he believes in and doesn't panic.
"You might hit him with a big play, but he keeps coming. That's what I loved about playing for him. He never got rattled and stayed true to who he was."
Chavis is a fiercely loyal person, and a lot of that goes back to the way he was raised.
His parents, Robert and Becky Jane Chavis, instilled in all of their children at a very young age the importance of earning their keep.
"I was pumping gas in the evenings by the time I was 6 or 7 years old," Chavis said. "My family grew up in the church. We were in church every Sunday. That's what my mom and dad believed in, and they believed in taking care of your business, whatever that business was. If you were obligated, you met those obligations."
Chavis had countless opportunities to leave Tennessee. Several NFL teams came calling, and so did Lou Holtz at South Carolina. Chavis was close a couple of times, but could never pull the trigger.
For one thing, his family was entrenched in East Tennessee. He was also orange to the core, having walked on at Tennessee as a player, earning his scholarship and then working his way back to Tennessee as an assistant coach after stops at Alabama State and Alabama A&M.
So naturally, when Fulmer and his staff were ousted, Chavis took it as hard as anyone.
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"Yeah, it hurt. It hurt bad," Chavis said. "But that's life. You get knocked down and have to pick yourself up and get ready to go again. Those wounds are healed and gone. The shots that were taken were taken, but the wounds weren't that bad to begin with.
"I will always be very fond of that program and will always wish them nothing but great success. Sometimes you have to move on. You can't walk around with those ill feelings. If you keep that inside of you, you can't be productive. You've got to move on and enjoy life."
Needless to say, he's enjoying life on the bayou, and they're enjoying him.
The Tigers have gotten better every year defensively under Chavis and are ranked No. 2 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense heading into Monday night's game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
LSU's defense hasn't given up more than 11 points in any of its past nine games, and the Tigers' first-team defense has gone seven straight games without giving up a touchdown in the second half.
"The thing with Coach Chavis, though, is that he's always pushing you to another level," LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said. "You feel him out there on that field with you."
But that's the way it's always been with Chavis, who's never been real comfortable in the spotlight.
His comfort zone is with his players, and he's never going to throw them under the bus in any situation. If something goes wrong, it's always his fault.
"He's a blue-collar guy who lets his defenses speak for him," Wilson said. "He doesn't have to go out and boast and brag about what all he's accomplished, and you know as a player that he's always going to have your back."
As stubborn as he is loyal, Chavis refuses to play the self-promotion game. Getting him in front of a camera is about as hard as getting into the end zone against one of his defenses.
More on the BCS championship
For full coverage of the LSU-Alabama matchup in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, check out the BCS championship home page.
• BCS championship blog coverage
Monday on ESPN networks
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• 2 p.m.: The Experts: Allstate BCS National Championship Edition (ESPNU)
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• 4 p.m.: BCS Countdown (ESPN2)
• 5 p.m.: BCS Countdown (ESPNU)
• 6 p.m.: College GameDay (ESPN)
• 8:30 p.m.: Allstate BCS National Championship: LSU vs. Alabama (ESPN)
While most of your top coordinators are auditioning for a head-coaching job somewhere, the only thing Chavis is auditioning for is the next practice or next game.
"My dad always told me to leave the job better than you found it, to make it better, and that the most important job is the one you have," said Chavis, who continues to be a hot commodity as a defensive coordinator and has had overtures from Georgia and Texas since coming to LSU.
At age 55, Chavis is comfortable with being a lifelong assistant, although he would certainly listen if the right head-coaching opportunity came along.
"If there's an opportunity to compete on the level we're competing on here, then absolutely, I would cherish the opportunity," Chavis said. "But I'm not one of those guys who's going to look back when it's all said and done and say, 'You've done a lot of things, but you haven't been a head coach.'"
For that matter, Chavis is more than willing to spend the rest of his career right where he is.
It's home now.
"I've never been one to dwell too much on what's behind me," Chavis said. "You take the lessons you learn in life and move forward.
"I've never forgotten where I came from. That's important to me, but so are the opportunities I've had, and I can tell you that the opportunity to come to LSU was truly a blessing."
Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com.
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