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Photo by Wade Payne // Buy this photo
Tennessee Stat Book
John Chavis’ game plan for Saturday night includes a new wrinkle: an exit strategy.
When the final horn sounds at Neyland Stadium, the man known as Chief will walk to the Tennessee locker room one last time, get dressed and reach for his car keys.
“I don’t want to be in that scene,’’ he said. “I’ve already talked to my players.
“I’m going home.’’
He’s also leaving home. And it will hurt too much for a long good-bye Saturday night.
Tennessee football has been Chavis’ home for the past 20 years. Before that, it was home when he played football for the Vols from 1976-78.
He returned in 1989 as a linebackers coach, hired by Johnny Majors. Phillip Fulmer kept him on board when he succeeded Majors in 1993.
If Fulmer weren’t being forced out, Chavis would likely have stayed at UT as long as the boss was around. His career has been linked to Fulmer’s ever since Fulmer took a shot on him as defensive coordinator in 1995.
Chavis wasn’t necessarily the people’s choice back then, but he was Fulmer’s.
“There were several people out there, kind of the gunslingers, come-in-and-fix-your-defense kind of guys,’’ Fulmer recalled this week.
“It was a little bit of a stretch to hire from within like that, but I felt it was the right thing to do for us, short term and long term. And it’s just continued to pay off.’’
The earliest returns weren’t so hot. In Chavis’ third game as coordinator, Steve Spurrier’s Gators scored 48 unanswered points in a 62-37 romp.
“Even your dog will try to bite you after that,’’ Chavis was able to joke several years later.
Things got better in hurry. Chavis’ second defense allowed a miserly 237 yards a game in 1996. His ‘98 defense was the glue that made a national championship possible.
There have been fluctuations over the years, but by and large, defense has been something you could count on at Tennessee. The 2008 season, overall horror show that it’s been, is no exception: The Vols rank sixth in the nation in total defense.
“Given some of the deficiencies of our offense, it’s almost amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish,’’ Fulmer said.
While change has been part of the offense’s undoing, familiarity has been an ally to the defense.
Kentucky will be the 176th consecutive game that Chavis has schemed with assistants Dan Brooks and Steve Caldwell. Larry Slade is the new kid with a 126-game streak.
That longevity speaks both to UT’s success and the satisfaction of working with and for Chavis.
“He’s a good Christian man,’’ said Caldwell. “He’s very passionate about the game and very passionate about the kids. He doesn’t ever change.’’
“The guy,’’ said Brooks, “has got more football in his head than anybody I’ve ever been around. We’re more multiple than anybody I’ve ever worked with.’’
But the core of Chavis, to paraphrase a coaching cliche, is not so much his Xs and Os as the effort he gets from his Jimmies and Joes.
“When he’s in front of his kids,’’ said Brooks, “he’s so real. They know whatever he tells them is from his heart.
“He’s himself. That’s what he grew up with, fighting all his life to get to a Tennessee. He loves this school and loves those kids and that comes out every Saturday.’’
Chavis fought his way out of sharecropper’s tobacco field in South Carolina to go to college. He fought out of the lower-level coaching ranks to work at UT.
When he got there, he already had the knack for tapping into his players. As a fledgling coach at Alabama A&M, he would hear players talk about “keeping it real.’’ Not the hippest guy with slang, he had to ask them what “keeping it real” meant.
Chavis: “They said, ‘Coach, just tell the truth. That’s all you have to do is tell the truth and people will trust you.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do.’’
So Chavis will be keeping it real Saturday night with a quiet, quick exit. He doesn’t want to leave, but he’ll leave true to his own terms.
“When I was hired by coach Majors 20 years ago,’’ he said, “there was about two lines in the newspaper about the hiring.
“That’s me. I liked it better that way.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.