NEW ORLEANS — He’s known as Chief.
His players say he’s extremely tough on them but really fun to play for. And everyone in college football seems to be really fond of LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, who they talk about with respect.
“He’s unbelievable. The guy’s a great ball coach,” Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. “He’s been successful everywhere he’s been.”
Especially at Tennessee, where he played, and at LSU, where he’s turned the Tigers into a defensive juggernaut the past three seasons, none more special than this season.
There are some who think this LSU defense, one that ranks in the top three nationally in four significant categories, might the best ever. Consider that the Tigers have allowed just 10.5 points and 252 yards per game, given up just six first-half touchdowns, and stand 13-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation as they prepare for Monday’s BCS national-championship game rematch with Alabama.
That’s a defense that smothered Alabama in their last matchup, a 9-6 LSU overtime victory on Nov. 5, 2011, in Tuscaloosa.
“His defenses are aggressive and physical,” McElwain said. “You know they play really, really hard. They’re not confused. They know what they’re doing and they’re sound in their schemes. And he doesn’t try to overdo things. He lets his guys play and they do that.”
LSU had two first-team All-American cornerbacks this season in Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, and when Claiborne was named the Thorpe Award recipient, it marked the third consecutive year that a Chavis-coached player won the honor as the nation’s top defensive back.
Tennessee’s Eric Berry won it 2009 and LSU’s Patrick Peterson took the honor last year, something that the 55-year-old Chavis himself sees as a benchmark of which he’s very proud.
“They’ve played in this system,” Chavis said. “That speaks highly of what we do, in terms of developing players, and putting them into position to make plays.”
LSU safety Eric Reid, LSU’s third-leading tackler this season with 65, said Chavis makes it simple.
“He makes the call and you line up and do what you’re supposed to do,” Reid said, “and if everybody is on the same page it’s hard to break down.”
Chavis and his players talk a lot about the system.
“The system in itself is very multiple,” Chavis said. “The simplicity comes in terms of the technique. We feel like we do a great job of teaching technique. Ron [defensive backs coach Ron Cooper] has done a terrific job of that. I think that’s where you win those battles by playing great technique.”
That’s not lost on his competitors, especially McElwain. In four seasons at Bama against Chavis, he’s had to work hard for his offense. That includes 2008 when Chavis was still at Tennessee and then the past three games against LSU, punctuated by their last meeting when the Crimson Tide failed to score a touchdown.
“He’s unbelievable. The guy’s a great ball coach,” McElwain said. “He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. I think our first year in the league when we played [Tennessee] it was a dogfight there and then when he went to LSU, I was like I was hoping he was going to get out and go somewhere else. The guy’s a fantastic coach. He’s been at it a long time. He knows your weaknesses and knows how to attack you and that’s what makes him special.”
In 1995, Chavis was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator and Tennessee went on to win the national championship. Chavis would have stayed at his alma mater forever, but when Philip Fulmer was forced out as head coach in 2008, his days in Knoxville were numbered.
“I’d never been let go from a job before. The thing that has been inside of me that my mom and dad instilled in me is that you take the job you’ve got and make it the best job in the country,” Chavis said.
“We felt we did that at Tennessee, but things happen. You never forget it, but it’s in the past.
“Loyalty is a two-way street. That’s one of the lessons I learned, too. Also, to be quite honest, no matter where you are you’re nothing more than a commodity. If you’re a hot commodity, everyone wants to buy it. If it’s on the downside it can be on the downside in a hurry.”
So LSU coach Les Miles considered it a score to corral the Chief, who after his first season at LSU in 2009 turned down a lucrative offer from Georgia to stay in Baton Rouge. For that matter, it was reported in Knoxville on Thursday that Chavis turned down yet another lucrative offer to come back to Tennessee as its defensive coordinator.
That will certainly make his current LSU players happy, including defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
“Chief is all around, you know, when it comes to football, getting us to perform well,” Brockers said. “I mean, he’s Chief. He’s out there telling us what we have to do and kind of correcting us on our mistakes.
“What makes him a great coach is when we’re off the field and we want to joke around, he jokes around with us. And I feel like that’s why his coaches respect him and we play so well for him, because he’s so down to earth when it’s not football time, when we’re not doing football, and when it is football, you know, he’s as strict as possible.”
That’s a familiar refrain among the Tigers, who said he’s not afraid to chew them out when they need it but quick to explain it to them later.
“He’s intense when he needs to be intense and he’s fun when it’s time to be fun,” Reid said. “There’s always a business side and there’s always a fun side. He says there’s a difference between wanting to do something and having to do it. He makes the atmosphere where we want to do things, so it’s fun.”
Chavis, who was quite emotional earlier this season when LSU won at Tennessee in his first game back there, got a bit choked up Thursday while talking about this team. And he appreciates that his players like that he sets the bar high.
“We’re asking our guys to do hard things all the time,” Chavis said. “If we ask them to do hard things all the time on the field on game day, and we hadn’t put them in those situations already, then we’ve done them an injustice.”
And he also appreciates that they recognize he’s able to teach some life lessons.
“I think football carries over. Things that will help you be successful in football will also make you successful in life,” Chavis said. “I’m going to be responsible for every ounce of influence I have on these young people and I’m going to be held accountable for that.”
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