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LSU coordinator John Chavis is chief reason for Tigers’ defensive resurgence

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It figures a guy called “Chief” would be in charge, and coordinator John Chavis definitely sets the tone for Louisiana State’s defense. The nickname stuck because of Chavis’s Native American heritage — but it’s fitting for other reasons.

The leader of one of the nation’s strongest defenses, Chavis is among the best in his line of work, and he has been for a long time as an assistant at two successful programs in the second-to-none Southeastern Conference. Chavis has played a part in some of college football’s biggest moments the past 20 years, and he’ll be at it again Saturday night as Alabama, No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, hosts top-ranked LSU.

In another regular season SEC showdown with national championship implications, Chavis is keeping it cool once again. The bright lights don’t faze him.

Chavis, 55, is a perfect fit for college football’s showcase events because “with all the big games he has been a part of, there’s not much he hasn’t seen,” one-time Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said of Chavis, who helped the Volunteers win the 1998 national championship. “When you’ve got one like that [Alabama-LSU], the experience John brings counts for a whole lot.”

The winner of Saturday’s SEC West Division matchup between the Crimson Tide (8-0) and Tigers (8-0) will take the lead in the stretch run to the BCS championship game in January. Either Alabama or LSU will have a clear, albeit still difficult, road to the New Orleans Superdome. It’s highly unlikely the loser also would get a spot in the BCS title game, which has never included two teams from the same conference.

With so much at stake, Chavis doesn’t bother trying to play down the situation. He’s too much of a straight shooter for that. This Alabama-LSU game is about as good as it gets in college football, “and we’re excited, too,” Chavis said during an interview Wednesday night. “Certainly, the winner will have an advantage, in terms of trying to win championships [SEC and BCS]. That’s what’s expected here at LSU. Every year, that’s what we try to accomplish.”

Both Alabama and LSU have outstanding defenses. There are future high NFL draft picks on those units. “No question about that one,” Chavis said.

And the Tigers’ impressive defense reflects well on Chavis’s ability as a teacher. He directed the school’s steady turnaround the past three seasons. LSU became an elite defense again after Chavis switched schools.

Disappointed with LSU’s performance during the 2008 season, Coach Les Miles pursued Chavis, who led some of the SEC’s most productive defenses while serving as the coordinator at Tennessee, his alma mater, from 1995 to 2008.

During that time, the Volunteers were considered tough and well-disciplined. That’s what Chavis demanded.

After Chavis arrived in Baton Rouge, LSU regrouped well.

“Coach Miles felt like he needed some changes, but I certainly came into a very good situation,” Chavis said. “They recruited very well, so there was good talent here.

“The kids understood how to work and were willing to work. So when you come to a new place, and all the things you already need to be successful are already here, it makes it a good situation.”

Chavis had planned to retire in his former job. He has deep roots at Tennessee, having also played for the Volunteers.

Over the years, Chavis had opportunities to leave for other positions in college and one in the NFL, but he remained with Tennessee, in part, because of his loyalty to Fulmer. But when Fulmer, under pressure from the school’s administration, announced his resignation during the 2008 season, Chavis’s run ended, too.

Fulmer expected Chavis to make a smooth transition with LSU “because of how hard John works and the type of person he is. He’s a great defensive coordinator, but he’s an even better person, and that’s why John has accomplished everything he has.”

He credits his hard-working parents. His mother was Cherokee and his father, a sharecropper, was a member of the Lumbee tribe.

Chavis is believed to be the lone Native American defensive coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The NFL has one assistant coach of Native American descent, according to research by the league.

Chavis’s family struggled financially, he said, “but my parents always encouraged us to do well at whatever we chose.”

For Chavis, it was football. The game helped him become the only one of nine siblings to earn a college degree.

Proud of his heritage, Chavis embraces his standing as a positive Native American role model, “and I am involved in some situations right now, in terms of helping [other Native Americans]. But obviously this is a great country, and you’re able to, if you’re willing to make sacrifices and work hard, have success in this country.

“Athletics have been an opportunity for a lot of people, particularly a lot of different minorities, to do well and to grow. And certainly when you’ve received as much from the sport as I have, you want to be able to give back. That’s important for me.”

Although many Native Americans are displeased that Washington’s NFL franchise continues to call itself the Redskins, Chavis said he is not offended.

“And I know this would probably be maybe a little bit offensive to someone who saw it differently, but to me, I think it pays respect,” Chavis said. “I don’t think it’s any disrespect at all. When a team or an organization chooses that as a mascot, in my opinion, they’re not belittling anyone. To be honest with you, I think it’s a quite an honor.”

That’s Chavis’s straightforward view. And it’s fine with him if others disagree. He’s not the type to simply follow the majority — he’s busy leading.

© The Washington Post Company