For most of his adult life, John Chavis’ blood ran as deep a shade of orange as you could possibly find.
But as Chavis himself says, nothing lasts forever.
So when Tennessee visits Tiger Stadium on Saturday to take on No. 12-ranked LSU, make no mistake where Chavis’ allegiances will lie.
“I’m purple and gold through and through,” said Chavis, in his second season as LSU’s defensive coordinator. “If I’m able to finish my career here at LSU, that would be great.”
There was a time when Chavis thought he would never leave Tennessee, and the only reason he did leave was because he had no choice.
When Phillip Fulmer was fired toward the end of the 2008 season, Chavis wasn’t retained by Lane Kiffin. There was no chance that he would be, not with Kiffin bringing in his father, Monte Kiffin, to run the defense.
Still, the sting of being run out of town by his alma mater cut deeply for the man they call “Chief” and still does to some degree, although he counts his blessings to have landed at a place like LSU.
Chavis won’t say it publicly, but he’s had Saturday’s game circled for some time. It’s probably not circled in blood like it would have been had Kiffin still been around, but it’s nonetheless still circled.
Above everything else, Chavis is undyingly loyal. He had numerous offers to leave Tennessee in his 14 seasons as defensive coordinator, both NFL jobs and college jobs, but simply couldn’t bring himself to leave his alma mater or leave Phillip Fulmer. Chavis and Fulmer had been together on the Vols’ staff since 1989, and Fulmer promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1995.
Chavis, whose two sons still live in Knoxville, takes tremendous pride in the dizzying run the Vols had during his time on Rocky Top. In his 14 seasons as defensive coordinator, they finished 11 times in the top three in the SEC in total defense.
The backbone of that 1998 national championship team was Chavis’ defense, and he still keeps in touch with many of those players.
“I enjoyed my time there. It was fun, probably one of the better eras in Tennessee football history. But that’s gone,” said Chavis, who walked on as a player at Tennessee before earning a scholarship. “I’m fortunate to be in a great program where we’ve got a chance to win and coach great athletes. I’m excited about that.”
He’s also excited about this defense, which is tied for fifth nationally in scoring defense and is ninth nationally in total defense.
In the Tigers’ last three games, they’ve allowed just three touchdowns and are second in the SEC with 11 forced turnovers.
It’s a defense built on speed, similar to the ones Chavis put together at Tennessee. It’s also a defense that had to replace seven starters, but Chavis hasn’t been hesitant about incorporating freshmen into the mix.
Just in the secondary alone, true freshmen Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid are playing key roles along with redshirt freshman Craig Loston. On the defensive line, redshirt freshmen ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and redshirt freshman tackle Michael Brockers are all part of the rotation.
LSU coach Les Miles was thrilled with the way Chavis was able to come in and restore the edge to the Tigers’ defense a year ago. So much so that LSU bumped his salary up to $700,000 annually when Clemson and Georgia both came after him during the offseason.
It’s an investment that’s paying off even more now that Chavis’ scheme has had a chance to sink in with all the players. The second time around is always a little better.
“John knows our personnel better and has taken advantage of some of the things they do,” Miles said. “His knowledge of our guys and our guys’ knowledge of the defensive calls has just made that defense a little bit keener and a little bit better.”
And the “Chief” of that defense couldn’t feel more at home.