John Chavis was a college football icon. Before he arrived in Arkansas. And even though it was a disastrous two seasons in Fayetteville, Chavis did not totally napalm his reputation in Fayetteville. He is still a football legend in the American South.
The man they call “The Chief” has spent his entire career coaching, since 1979, in only that geography. His resume list reads like a Waffle House franchise location map:
- Alabama A&M
- Alabama State
- Alabama A&M again
- Texas A&M
If the last one sticks out like a sore thumb, there’s a reason for it. You may or may not be aware that the United States Football League is a thing again. The Gen Xers and Baby Boomers reading this piece will likely recall the league’s initial foray into American sports. From 1983-85, the USFL, built by Southerner David Dixon, competed in opposition to the NFL. They knew they couldn’t eclipse the big boys, so they played in the spring and summer for three seasons, ultimately folding before the 1986 season.
It made its return this past year with eight teams, many of which were dotted with former SEC players. They include the Birmingham Stallions, by the way, with a defense coached by none other than Chavis. The Stallions won the USFL title on the weekend over the Philadelphia Stars in a game, I’m sure, everyone and their father watched.
As much as I jest, the league was considered a success in its first season back. The XFL, twice, had no such luck in lasting more than a year and the Alliance of American Football didn’t even make it through its first season. But the USFL will return in just under a year’s time. Chavis will again almost certainly be coaching the defense of the defending champions.
The Downfall of John Chavis
Still, it’s odd that this man, this icon of the SEC, is toiling in what is ostensibly minor-league football. Not only is the resume exclusively southern, it’s also filled with success, namely at Tennessee, LSU and sporadically at Texas A&M, where he built some of the best defenses in college football.
Unfortunately, for Arkansas fans and Chavis himself, that success didn’t take hold at his final SEC stop. The Razorbacks were 79th and 110th in FBS in total defense during Chavis’ two years of 2018 and 2019. The Chad Morris years. Arkansas’ 2-10 record each season still stands as the two worst seasons in modern Hogs history. Such a showing didn’t exactly have suitors knocking down Chavis’ door when his tenure in Fayetteville concluded. His next stop was coaching middle school football in Tennessee.
But the Stallions, coached by Skip Holtz, the son of former Razorback coach Lou Holtz and another former college head man who knows his way around the South, hired Chavis two-and-a-half years later. It was a return to the sport he’s known most of his adult life. His redemption, of sorts, came Sunday, when his defense keyed the Stallions’ championship. Scooby Wright’s pick-six with under three minutes left gave Birmingham an unrecoverable lead and Christian McFarland’s interception with 28 seconds left gave the ball back to the Stallions to kneel.
You might have missed it.
A Minor (League) Redemption After Disaster at Arkansas
It was a positive for Chavis, anyway, as his stint at Arkansas wasn’t exactly reflective of his overall career. In retrospect, a lot of the things that went down in Fayetteville probably weren’t his fault. The hiring of Morris is regarded as the worst hire by an SEC team in forever and the culture created by the coach was not conducive to production on either side of the ball. Apparently, anyway. It’s about the only explanation for how, in 2018, a defense with two NFL regulars and three more rotation guys was so bad. Any squad that has Dre Greenlaw, Kamren Curl, De’Jon Harris, McTelvin Agim and Armon Watts should not finish 11th in the SEC in total defense.
The next year, with Harris, Curl and Watts back and joined by Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool on most plays, was an unmitigated disaster. Arkansas gave up 451 yards per game in 2019 and finished last in the SEC for the first time since 2009 when there were still only 12 teams playing in the league. Chavis was terminated at the end of the year and paid his $1.25 million buyout before largely disappearing from the public scene for the next two years.
The Stallions brought him back to life. Er, well, to coaching males who have to shave again, anyway. It remains to be seen, however, if the season was enough to get him back to college football, which offers far more monetary reward and recognition. Perhaps, though, Chavis isn’t interested. He’s 65 and this era of college football – year-round recruiting, NIL, transfer portal – is enough to drive even the hardest-working grinders crazy with anxiousness.
Either way, Chavis has, at least, put his name back out in the world. Maybe somebody, somewhere, in the American South, will take another chance.
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…