KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - In the end, Tennessee’s offense couldn’t get to John Chavis or his defense enough to make a difference.
His emotions, rooted in what this place has meant to his life, did.
The personification of a classic, burly, barrel-chested, tough as nails, Southern by the grace of God football coach, LSU’s defensive coordinator didn’t want to tear up. Especially not in front of cameras and reporters.
“I said I’d never do this again, but I did,” the man they call “Chief” said, red-eyed.
“So I’m a softy. Call me a big baby. But it’s a great feeling.”
Real men do cry, John, especially when confronted with the reality of stepping back onto the field where they became a man.
And the joy of stepping out a winner as fans cheered him off that field.
“I didn’t want it to be about me, because really it’s not,” he said. “I’m just fortunate to be a part of it.”
Les Miles, Chavis’ boss these past three seasons at LSU, knows about having deep-rooted feelings for his alma mater. LSU and Michigan may meet in a bowl one day, but Miles will never schedule the Wolverines. The emotions, he says, would be too much.
There was no calling off this game, Chavis’ first against Tennessee since he left the program where he played and coached most of three decades in 2008. A place like LSU where he chewed out players then hugged them around the neck and let them know how much he cared. The place where he was let go along with the rest of Phillip Fulmer’s staff before the one-year Hindenburg called the Lane Kiffin Experience blew into town.
Defensively, it wasn’t a totally vintage LSU performance. Tennessee rushed for minus-29 yards in its first two Southeastern Conference games but netted 111 against the Tigers. Backup quarterback Matt Simms connected on long passes covering 44, 38 and 21 yards.
Still, LSU’s big, burly defense also was part of the formula that squeezed the life out of the Volunteers in the second half as the No. 1-ranked Tigers coasted to a 38-7 victory.
The Vols managed just 66 yards in the second half on three possessions, while LSU possessed the ball 22 minutes thanks to drives like the 99-yarder that chewed up 8:44 of clock.
Chavis joked that during that drawn-out march he had time to think about 10 things and forget nine. Some of his thoughts had to turn to the fact he had come back to the place where he spent most of his adult life and was leaving a conquering hero in the eyes of fans on both sides.
Afterward, they gave Chief the game ball.
“You can’t put it in words,” said Chavis, who turns 55 Sunday. “You can’t.
“It’s a great feeling when you leave a program that you didn’t get to leave the way you wanted to that people still care about you.”
They care, Chief.
You didn’t give them any other choice.