Chavis, Steele never more than a phone call away

bgillespie@thestate.comOctober 4, 2009 

  • The Kevin Steele File

    AT CLEMSON: First season

    BORN: March 17, 1958

    WIFE: Linda

    CHILDREN: Gordon, Caroline

    HIGH SCHOOL: Dillon High

    COLLEGE: Furman (1976), Tennessee (1978-79)

    COACHING: Tennessee (student assistant, graduate assistant), 1980-81, linebackers, 1982; New Mexico State, 1983; Oklahoma State, 1984-86; Tennessee, 1987-88; Nebraska, 1989-94; Carolina Panthers (NFL), 1995-98; Baylor (head coach), 1999-2002; Florida State, 2003-06; Alabama, 2007-08

    The John Chavis File

    AT LSU: First season

    BORN: Oct. 16, 1956

    WIFE: Diane

    CHILDREN: John, Jason

    HIGH SCHOOL: Dillon High

    COLLEGE: Tennessee (1976-78)

    COACHING: Tennessee (graduate assistant), 1979; Alabama A&M, 1980-83 and 1986-88; Alabama State, 1984-85; Tennessee, 1989-2008 (defensive coordinator, 1995-2008)

CLEMSON - The phone call went out sometime late last Saturday. Maybe Kevin Steele called John Chavis, or maybe Chavis called Steele. It doesn't matter who, so much as what.

It was the perfect time for an "ain't it awful" call.

Earlier that day, Steele, Clemson's defensive coordinator, had watched his Tigers lose 14-10 to No. 15 TCU. Meanwhile, Chavis' LSU defense was getting rung up for 26 points by usually woeful Mississippi State, a game the SEC's Tigers still won.

Neither coach was happy. Who better then to commiserate with than your best friend and fellow defensive coordinator, the one other person in the world who knows you and what you do as well as you know yourself; the person you talk to every day?

"We've got a little deal," Steele said, "where we tell each other it's an 'ain't it awful' call. If one of us is down or upset, frustrated, he'll say, 'Well, I got some 'ain't it awful' for you.

"And automatically, the other takes the other (positive) side. No matter if you're both having a bad day, that's the rule: If I tell you I'm calling because 'ain't it awful,' you've got to talk me out of it."

Of course, when you've been in coaching as long and as successfully as these two - 30 college seasons for Chavis, 25 in college and four with the Carolina Panthers for Steele - there have been more good days than bad.

Their resumes speak to their abilities. Steele's Crimson Tide was third in the nation last year in total defense, fourth in rushing defense and sixth in scoring defense.

And though the Volunteers were staggering to a 5-7 record, Tennessee's defense ranked third, fourth and 10th nationally in total, pass and scoring defense, respectively. Suffice to say, Chavis did not have to wait long for LSU to come calling after Vols head coach Philip Fulmer and his staff left town.

Dan Brooks, who worked with Chavis at Tennessee from 1994-2008 and who today coaches Clemson's defensive tackles, marvels at the Steele-Chavis connection.

"There's something in the water in Dillon," he said. "They're both very competitive, and there are a lot of similarities in their personalities.

"They don't call the same game on the field, but there are a lot of similarities there, too. They've both got an attitude; know what they've got to get done, all business."

They have shared so much it figures they even took turns being wooed by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney this past offseason.

Chavis got the first call, offered the chance to replace Vic Koenning, and he thought about it long and hard. "It was a very difficult situation for me," Chavis said. "Dabo made that thing right for me, and I love that state. I would've been happy there, and they'll do a great job, but something wanted me in the SEC. I couldn't turn (LSU) down."

Enter Steele, who was ready to leave Alabama after two seasons; he said he and head coach Nick Saban, whose background also is defense, "do the same thing. That's not bad if you're 33, but when you've done it a while, you're past that."

So Steele definitely was interested in Clemson. "But at the time, John was involved, and he was out of a job," Steele said. "Because of that, (pursuing the Tigers' opening) was out of the question."

Still, Steele also was involved via daily calls with Chavis. When Chavis decided to pass, "I talked to John at 8:15, and I talked to coach Swinney at 9:30" a day after Steele and Chavis talked for more than two hours about Chavis' choice of Tigers.

"I didn't know exactly what (Chavis) was going to do," Steele said, "but I kind of thought when I went to bed, 'He's going to stay in the SEC.'" When Chavis confirmed that, "I hung up and said, 'Boy, that'd be good to see if something's there.'"

Obviously, 'something' was.

Both programs appear pleased with their hires. "John certainly has great experience, understands the want for dominant defense," LSU coach Les Miles said before this season. "I think he will expect (that), and our guys will deliver."

In Steele, Swinney says he got the right guy to change Clemson's defensive image. "We believe in the same things philosophically," Swinney said, "and he had a temperament I was looking for. He's just a perfect fit for Clemson."

Swinney also liked Steele's approach to detail, from his spotless office ("you can eat off the floor") to his demands of his players. ("We may not give up a point if we're half as good as (Steele) is off the field.")

Of course, had the Tigers' coach asked, Chavis would have told him all that about Steele. Who would know better?

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They were born 2 1/2 years and a continent apart, one the son of a high school principal and coach, the other the son of Dillon sharecroppers. Growing up in the 1960s in a Pee Dee community known for tobacco and high school football, they shared experiences that formed their personalities and world views.

Steele, the principal's son, recalls summers working in a tobacco market at age 14 or 15, "a tin barn the size of a football field, and it felt like 120 (degrees) in there. We've got all that tobacco laid out on the floor, working 12-hour days."

One day, he said, the owner approached him and others. "The pull-in where they back down the loading dock, they'd had a cucumber market down there," Steele said. "Water and waste, knee-deep, rotten cucumbers in there about a month; I can't tell you what that smelled like.

"(The owner said), 'The deal is, we got a tobacco sale tomorrow, boys, RJ Reynolds and the rest rolling in here, and that loading dock better be clean.' The next four hours, with buckets and shovels, me and another guy cleaned that out.

"Some places in the country, you'd say, 'Go do that,' you wouldn't find anyone to do it. But we didn't have a choice."

Chavis can relate. He tells stories of working as a teen in tobacco fields in the summer, the tobacco stalks taller than he was, to the point he felt some days like he couldn't reach the oxygen he needed to breathe.

But there were good times, too. Football at Dillon High under legendary coach Paul Chapman was demanding - but compared to the tobacco fields? A piece of cake, right?

"We'd go to football camp in the summer with 33 guys on a (Class)4A team," Steele said. "It wasn't we didn't have (more boys) in school, but they weren't playing."

Current Dillon coach and native Jackie Hayes, a few years younger than Steele and Chavis, was a student manager in their heyday. He says Dillon kids today are still "pretty mentally tough, but believe me, it has changed. If these kids had to play when we played ... we might not have enough to field a team."

Chavis, whose nickname "Chief" comes from his mother's Cherokee heritage, remembers when Steele, born in California, and his family arrived in town.

"He was the new kid on the block, and we wanted to get after him, not let him take our position," Chavis said. "But he wasn't fazed by that. He became a leader."

Steele became Dillon's quarterback, while Chavis played linebacker and guard. "He had to be nice to me because I was blocked for him," Chavis said, laughing.

"Those two pretty much did everything together," Hayes said. "They both understood the game (of football), the concepts of how you play the game."

Their relationship grew in large part because of Steele's father. Dillon's principal for nearly 30 years, he became a second father to Chavis - taking him along on hunting trips and making sure, Hayes said, the kid from the poor family got free meals in the school cafeteria.

"My dad grew up very poor, and he reached out to kids," Steele said. "The thing that made us not just friends but a brotherhood was when my dad started hitting John with, 'You need to go to college.'"

It was the elder Steele who encouraged Chavis, who unlike others in Dillon did not laugh when the stocky kid believed he could play in the SEC at Tennessee.

"You can't understand the impact his dad had on young people," Chavis said. "A great Christian man; he did a lot of teaching, and preaching, always sharing with others.

"He was a strong disciplinarian, but he had a soft touch to it. If you did right, he'd guide you where you needed to be."

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For Chavis, that place was Tennessee. Steele headed to Furman in the fall of 1976, but two years later transferred to Tennessee, where he and Chavis were roommates and teammates.

"It's a friendship that you appreciate like no other," Chavis said. "Someone you can share your thoughts with and get an honest opinion, which is hard to come by; someone you trust to tell you something - a job offer, whatever - is not in your best interest."

Both began their coaching careers at Tennessee: Chavis as a graduate assistant in 1979, before moving on to Alabama A&M; Steele from 1980-82, then going to New Mexico State. That was as close as they came to coaching on the same staff - until 20 years ago.

The story has become part of the fabric of their friendship: how after a decade apart, Steele and Chavis were part of the same Tennessee staff - for two days.

"We always had this dream of coaching together," Steele said. "(In 1988), I was defensive backs coach at UT, and the defensive line job opened up; I went down the hall to coach (Johnny) Majors and told him, 'Coach, we've got to hire John,'" who was the defensive coordinator at Alabama A&M.

Majors made the call, and Chavis accepted. "He goes back (to Alabama), gets his clothes, comes back and is staying in my house," Steele said. "The next morning, (Nebraska coach) Tom Osborne calls and offers me a job."

Brooks laughed. "They had worked together two days, and Kevin came to see me at North Carolina," where Brooks coached the defensive line. "We were at practice - this is before cell phones - and a secretary comes out, says Kevin has an urgent call (from Osborne).

"Later I heard Kevin gets back to Knoxville and his locker is all cleaned out. He's hollering, 'Where's my stuff?' and Max Parrott, Tennessee's assistant equipment guy, says, 'It's in Lincoln, Neb.' He'd put it all in a box and mailed it there."

Brooks said Chavis later told Steele, tongue-in-cheek, "You're with us, or you're against us." Of course, that did not stop the friendship, or the daily telephone conversations, between the two.

In the two decades since, both men shared the changes that go with their career choices. Steele moved often; Chavis, never until this year. When options presented themselves, each knew who to use as a sounding board.

"(Steele) had that experience in the NFL (1995-98) and as a head coach (Baylor, 1999-2002)," Chavis said. "A couple of times, I wanted to do that (NFL), I thought it would be the highest level. He never told me what to do, but he'd say, 'This is what was great, this is what I didn't like.'

"He'd say, 'You know what you like and don't like in college (coaching). You've got to weigh your options.' He gave me that perspective."

It was easy to do because, after all, the two know each other so well.

"They can finish each other's sentences," Brooks said. "They talk every day, and not just about football." Indeed, the past two years, when Steele was coaching Tennessee's rival, their calls had to be, shall we say, circumspect when it came to talking shop.

"That was not fun," Steele said. "It was Alabama-Tennessee, and you're not even supposed to talk to someone across the lines. But yeah, we talked. We couldn't talk about football, but we talked."

The "ain't it awful" calls became less about football, more about family and friends and their lives. Then, last July, came the day when "ain't it awful" was literally about life and death.

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When Steele moved to Alabama in 2007, his parents decided to follow. His mother had inherited a farm in Alabama about 13 miles from Tuscaloosa, and so after 30 years in Dillon, they moved to the farm to stay.

"My dad was at practice, I saw him all the time," Steele said. "There were two people I talked to every day: John Chavis and my dad."

Then, last summer, his father contracted an infection that swiftly turned septic. On a Sunday, the Steeles attended church; a day later, the elder Steele was in a hospital.

Even then, his son did not realize how ill he was. "That was his way," Steele said. "He was a Marine - I shouldn't say 'was', you're a Marine forever.

"He was lying there, talking to me at noon. At 3 p.m., he was gone."

Steele walked out of the emergency room, he said, in a state of shock. He called his wife, Linda, and then he called Chavis.

Both men remember that moment. Chavis, en route from Knoxville to Dillon, was near the intersection of I-20 and I-95. He pulled off the highway to take his friend's call.

He listened, his heart breaking for his friend, and said "I'm on my way - right now."

"It had been 10 minutes (since his father's death), and I knew what that was like," said Chavis, who was comforted by Steele when Chavis' parents died in the mid-1990s. "My wife (Diane) sat listening to the conversation - I was getting ready to take her on vacation - and when I hung up, she said, 'You've got to go back.'"

Chavis did; turned his car around right there and drove to Knoxville, picked up a change of clothes and then drove to the hospital.

Steele said he will never forget his friend's arrival.

"I tell you this," he said, his voice husky. "When my wife walked through the hospital door, I didn't shed a tear; when my son and daughter walked in, the same. But when John got out of his car, I had to walk away with him.

"To be honest, that was the ice-breaker, the point where I dealt with it. I didn't deal with it until John and I were together."

That's what friends - no, more than friends; brothers - do.

Life goes on; coaches keep on moving, chasing jobs, dreams, hopes. But as long as they have cell phones, Steele and Chavis will be able to share it all.

Sometime in the future, they say, they won't even need the phones.

"We say we're going to retire, go back to the Pee Dee and volunteer at some high school," Steele said. "We'll be the defensive staff: He'll take the front (seven), I'll take the secondary, and we'll just kind of (do it)."

Chavis laughed when told Steele's words. "We're not kidding around about it," he said. "We might be able to do it someday at a place like we are now, but if not, maybe a small school or even high school ball."

Hayes would love to see both of them back in Dillon, offering a new generation the benefit of their own backgrounds, their knowledge of football and the theme that runs through both.

"Those guys have never forgotten where they came from," Hayes said. "They always come back, say 'what can we do to help?' Their roots are still in Dillon."

And on any given Saturday, each knows whatever happens in their respective games, someone who knows and understands what it's like is never more than a phone call away.

Reach Senior Writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304

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