FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John Chavis has coached against Arkansas 23 times in his career during stops at Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M.
Over that time, he’s developed the opinion it’s possible to win on the biggest stage at Arkansas. It’s that belief which played a significant role in Chavis recently accepting the defensive coordinator position on Chad Morris’ staff with the Razorbacks.
“Everybody asks, ‘Coach, can you win a national championship here?,’ Yeah, we’re probably not gonna win it tomorrow, but we can win a national championship here,” Chavis said Wednesday at his introductory press conference. “I know what it can be like here. So, we’re excited about that. I’m excited personally to be a part of Coach Morris’ staff and be a part of the group that is gonna help him put Arkansas where it needs to be. Certainly, I’m excited about wearing this Arkansas shirt today.”
Chavis’ confidence in what the Arkansas program can be comes from facing the Hogs with a lot on the line. Though his teams were victorious in 18 of those 23 games against the Razorbacks, playing Arkansas wasn’t always easy for Chavis defenses.
One of those challenges was the 1998 clash between the No. 1 Vols and No. 10 Hogs. Both teams were undefeated heading into the Nov. 14 matchup in Knoxville. Of course, Arkansas supporters remember this game far less fondly than Chavis. The Razorbacks — quite literally — fumbled away a 21-3 lead to fall 28-24 after Chavis’ defense tightened in the second half.
But that’s not what Chavis said he remembers about Arkansas from that game. He remembers facing a program that could compete with anyone, considering that the Hogs likely should’ve beaten those Vols, who went on to win the national championship that season.
Chavis’ belief Arkansas could be a championship contender was solidified 13 years later while at LSU. On Nov. 25, 2011, the No. 1 Tigers hosted No. 3 Arkansas with SEC and national title implications on the line. Alabama, which would go on to defeat LSU for the national championship that season, was No. 2 at the time. If the Hogs could be in the mix with Alabama and LSU in late November, Chavis thought, they can be a championship program.
“I’ve seen the caliber of teams that Arkansas can field,” Chavis said. “Certainly that is one of the things that will make me excited and keep me excited knowing that it’s possible.”
Morris’ vision for the program was another strong selling point that helped bring Chavis to Arkansas. The model for success is essentially built behind relentless recruiting, explosive offense and aggressive defense.
Chavis is confident the offense is in good hands with Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock. On defense, Chavis has promised to provide aggressiveness with an emphasis on dominating the line of scrimmage and pressuring the quarterback.
“I understand the model [Morris] is putting together here,” Chavis said. “It is a model that will give us the opportunity to have great success at Arkansas. The vision he has and to be able to put that together, I’m really, really excited about that.”
There have been questions about Chavis himself, though. Is the 61-year-old with 38 years of coaching experience still motivated to work at a high level? Or is he past his prime, lacking the ability to relate with young players and the energy needed to succeed as a coordinator in the SEC? If Wednesday was any indication, Chavis still has plenty of passion left as a coach.
“If I can’t feel good about what we’re doing, in terms of being at the top of the league or at the top of the profession, then it’s time for somebody else to do it,” Chavis said. “And hey, that day is going to come. It’s just not now, because it’s still burning inside.
“I know I can coach. I know I can recruit. I know I can motivate. I know I can develop players, and I know that’s what we’re going to do. If I feel like I can’t do that, or somebody else feels like I can’t do that, then hey, send me off into the sunset or whatever. But it’s not time for that yet. I’ve got a lot of football left in me.”