KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Twirling his whistle furiously, John Chavis instructs one of his linebackers to get wider.
“Line up right there on his foot,” Chavis barks. “Let’s run it again. On the hop. Let’s go!”
It’s reminiscent of the way the man they call “Chief” coached the game for 30 consecutive years in the SEC from 1989-2019, including the past quarter-century as a defensive coordinator at four different schools.
Only now, instead of coaching Tyrann Mathieu, Jamal Adams and Al Wilson, he’s a volunteer on the West Middle School team in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Chavis, who turns 64 later this month, is quick to note he’s not even the defensive coordinator — just an assistant.
“That way, when we don’t get them stopped on third down, they can’t get on my butt,” joked Chavis, who’s coaching the team with former Tennessee quarterback Jeff Francis and longtime friend George Ewart, owner of the popular Knoxville restaurant Dead End BBQ.
Ewart, the team’s defensive coordinator, is quick to reply.
“We’ve got a new play called ‘Third-and-Chavis,'” Ewart said, referring to the derisive name some fans came up with for their defensive coordinators on 3rd-and-long situations when (insert favorite team here) can’t get stops.
Chavis shoots back, “It hasn’t worked yet. Maybe we ought to call it Third-and-Ewart.”
This is Chavis’ 42nd year coaching football, and after being the defensive coordinator on a national championship team at Tennessee and coaching multiple SEC title teams with the Vols and LSU and countless first-round NFL draft picks, he’s not sure he has ever had more fun.
“These kids have no clue who I am or where I’ve coached, and that’s good,” said Chavis, who won the Broyles Award in 2011 at LSU as the top assistant coach in college football and the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year Award in 2006 at Tennessee.
“I don’t care what level it is. I still love seeing kids grow and come together as a team as much as I ever did. I wouldn’t trade any of it, just being out here working with these kids and being around George and Jeff.”
None of the kids on the team are old enough to remember Chavis’ best defenses at LSU or Tennessee, but their parents, grandparents and other family members sure do.
Bethany Bennett, whose son James plays on the team, said she never has any problem getting James to practice when she has a conflict.
“Uncles, godfather … they’re all like, ‘I will take him,'” Bennett said laughing. “They all want to come and see Coach Chavis.”
Jerri Garner’s grandson, Elijah, has heard all about some of Chavis’ suffocating defenses from his grandfather. Tennessee’s 1998 defense was the backbone of that national championship team. The Vols held 10 of their 13 opponents that season to 18 or fewer points. And Chavis’ 2011 LSU defense, the heartbeat of the Tigers’ SEC championship team and national runner-up, scored six defensive touchdowns and allowed only 15 touchdowns in 14 games.
And while the kids on West’s team might be too young to remember Chavis’ best defenses, they know the players he coached.
“We had one kid, one of our safeties, Malach McCloud, and I asked him who his favorite player was in the NFL and he said it was Jamal Adams,” Ewart recounted. “I said, ‘You know who recruited Jamal Adams and who coached him?'”
Pointing over to Chavis, Ewart said, “That guy right there. He also coached the Honey Badger [Mathieu], Patrick Peterson and Eric Berry.”
McCloud, his eyes widening, marveled, “For real? And he’s coaching me?”
Francis said Chavis was initially a little hesitant about coaching kids hard.
“George and I don’t hesitate to yell at the kids, and I think John, in his heart, was trying to figure that out,” Francis said. “When we asked him to help us, I told him that we could scheme all we wanted to, but that we would rather have him teach kids fundamentals, football technique and getting off blocks. He’s been great with that and great with the kids and hasn’t missed a practice.”
Always a gruff taskmaster on the field, Chavis isn’t above having fun. One of the team’s receivers approached him after a play and said, “Coach, you need to talk to your corners,” and proceeded to show Chavis the move he juked the cornerback with on a deep route.
Chavis, his trademark mustache hiding most of his smile, said, “Show me again what you got him with,” and did his own little juke.
One of the players on the team, Andrew, is the youngest son of former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who’s now at Alabama as a special assistant to Nick Saban.
“Plays with a lot of tenacity and gets after it on every play,” said Chavis, breaking down the younger Jones much the same way he would any of his former players in the SEC.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has known Chavis since their high school days in Dillon, South Carolina, where Chavis grew up in a small house with nine brothers and sisters. His parents were sharecroppers. Steele and Chavis were teammates and roommates at Tennessee and have remained close friends.
Steele, upon hearing Chavis was volunteering his time as a youth coach, wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“If you know John Chavis, and I’ve known him for a long time, he’s always coached to give back to the game of football because he’s very appreciative of what the game has given him,” Steele said. “To him, it’s no different if he was doing the same thing with the New England Patriots or the University of Oklahoma or coaching middle school kids. It’s the love of the game and giving back and helping young people. That’s his DNA.”
Chavis isn’t ruling out returning to college football or even the NFL. Before the pandemic, Chavis said he had some conversations with coaches in both the college and NFL ranks, but those conversations were put on hold.
Either way, he wants to coach again, especially given that his past two coaching stops at Arkansas and Texas A&M weren’t nearly as successful as his first two stops at LSU and Tennessee.
“If it’s over, it’s over,” Chavis said. “But before I say it’s over, I want to see what else is out there, college or NFL. I’ve got some people who have talked to me and are talking to me, and I’d even take a high school job. I love doing this. I’m going to coach as long as I’m healthy and the good Lord wants me to do this. I’ve still got that passion.
“But if it is over, I don’t have any regrets. The only regret would be leaving with a bad taste in your mouth after the way it ended at Arkansas and Texas A&M.”
The Hogs were ranked 124th nationally in scoring defense and 110th in total defense in 2019 when Chad Morris and his staff were fired. And when Kevin Sumlin and his staff were fired in 2017 at Texas A&M, the Aggies were ranked 87th in scoring defense and 78th in total defense.
“Nobody wants to go out like that, but not many of us in this business do go out on our terms,” Chavis said. “It’s a blessing if you can, and sometimes it’s a blessing if you can’t because there are other things you can get involved with, like coaching these kids and doing it with such good people and good friends.
“I’m having fun. I’m not just saying that because I think it’s the thing to say. If I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t be doing it.”