Twenty years ago this fall, Kirby Smart was a junior safety on Georgia’s football team, Nick Chubb wasn’t yet two years old, Jacob Eason wasn’t born yet … and an offense coached by Jim Chaney was the toast of college football.
As the years went on, the “basketball on grass” offense at Purdue would be credited to Drew Brees and Joe Tiller, the innovative head coach. And detractors would say that the man calling the plays, Chaney, merely coasted on their coattails.
But Tom Kubat, the Purdue beat writer for the Indianapolis Star during those years, differs.
“He called the plays. And in no way would I say he was along for the ride,” Kubat said. “When I interviewed him, he had an innovative mind when it came to offense.”
Kubat has been retired for a decade now. This week he was online and saw a story that described Chaney as being a coordinator on the hot seat: Play-caller for a Georgia offense that last year was one of the lowest-scoring this century, a lightning-rod for fans who found Chaney’s play-calling alternately confounding and predictable.
Chaney, now 55 years old, has a long track record. There have been ups. There have been downs. Along the way he has shown an ability to adapt, and even changed philosophies. The following is an in-depth look at Chaney’s career as a play-caller, based on stats, contemporary sources and interviews with observers.
Jim Chaney got his start as a coordinator at just 26 years old, at a Division I-A program – which no longer exists.
Cal State Fullerton discontinued football after the 1992 season, which was the young Chaney’s fifth as offensive coordinator, according to his bio. A story three decades later in the Pittsburgh student newspaper would state that Chaney employed a novel offensive approach: An empty backfield, and spreading it out.
Records from that era are spotty at best. It is known that the team struggled, especially the last three years, with a lack of financial support from the school a big reason. The offense did well in 1989, ranking 27th nationally in total offense and 20th nationally in passing. Then it slipped the next three seasons, finishing 102nd in 1991 and 99th the next year, at which point the program folded.
Chaney, left without a job, hooked on at Wyoming, where he would serve as offensive line coach for the man who launched his career.
Joe Tiller had implemented a pass-heavy, air raid spread offense at Wyoming, and brought it with him to Purdue in 1997. He also brought Chaney.
Purdue’s offense blew up, ranking seventh nationally in that first year, with Chaney calling “most” of the plays, according to an ESPN.com story at the time. Quarterback Billy Dicken was first-team All-Big Ten.
“They took the Big Ten by storm,” Kubat said. “It couldn’t be any better. They were winning, and they were doing it with an exciting offense.”
Brees, the backup as a freshman, took over in 1998 and went on to set records, with Chaney now the principal playcaller. Purdue’s offense was top-10 nationally in 1999 and 2000, and top 10 in passing from 1998-2000.
Chaney was integral to the operation, according to Kubat. One of Chaney’s biggest impacts, recalls Kubat, was when he tweaked the gameplan to fit how the game was going, or when they had a good running back and offensive line.
“If they needed to make changes during the course of the game, they did,” Kubat said. “I give Chaney the credit there with the play-calling.”
When Brees left, it is true that things dropped off: The 2001 offense plummeted to 105th nationally, though Chaney’s offense rallied to No. 30 in 2002, then as high as No. 13 in 2004.
Some of the drop-off in Purdue’s offensive rankings, Kubat pointed out, could be attributed to Big Ten defenses starting to figure out what had been a novelty offense. It wasn’t just the departure of Brees.
“I think it was a combination of the Big Ten coaches, slowly but surely, figured out how they wanted to defend it,” said Kubat, who wrote a book on Tiller. “And it became an issue of, okay can Purdue change or tweak its offense enough to keep the defense off-balance, and recruit a bit better to stay ahead of the game.”
Tiller retired after the 2008 season. He and Chaney have remained close, with Chaney visiting Tiller in his Wyoming home this summer. But Chaney didn’t finish with his mentor: He left in 2006 for the NFL, joining the St. Louis Rams as an offensive line and tight ends coach.
It was part of a metamorphosis that Chaney was making in his mind, away from the high-flying offense.
Jim Chaney began his tenure at Tennessee working under Lane Kiffin. He finished it by replacing Derek Dooley.
Kiffin brought Chaney aboard in 2009, but Kiffin called plays that one year, when the Volunteers were more run-oriented. When Kiffin bolted for Southern Cal, new coach Dooley kept Chaney and let him call plays.
Even before he left Purdue, Chaney had begun to sour on “basketball on grass.” He got bored with the old spread offense, according to a story on Pittnews.com in 2015, and worried that such a pass-happy offense couldn’t win situational football. And he came to believe that using a pro-style base could add elements of the spread, but not vice versa. That was reinforced when he spent three years in the NFL.
“I do believe at the end of the day to have a successful offense, you have got to be very physical in this conference,” Chaney said last year. “You’ve got to win situational offense. You’ve got to win short yardage. You’ve got to win goal line. When there’s three minutes left in the game, you have got to run the ball out so the defense don’t have to go play.
“In my history at Purdue, I was unable to be able to do that to win the close games. That’s when I went in the NFL and came back with a little different philosophical look on the game.”
Still, when Chaney took over the play-calling at Tennessee, the personnel best suited a passing attack. The offensive line and tailbacks weren’t as good as the one year under Kiffin. And quarterback Tyler Bray developed very well under Chaney.
“I think what he tried to do was find what the offense did best,” said Jimmy Hyams, sports director of WNML radio in Knoxville. “Typically his offenses were really good, and did a nice job in developing some folks.”
The result: Three seasons that statistically were all over the place, from 104th nationally in 2011 back up to 18th the next year. Tennessee’s passing offense ranked in the top 50 every year, including No. 15 in 2012. But the running offense wa always outside the top 50 including 116th in 2011.
One of the critiques of Chaney by fans and media was they became too pass-happy. It was not that he was too predictable.
“I would not say that he was predictable at Tennessee,” Hyams said. “But he didn’t line up and run it out of the I either.”
Hyams was asked what the feeling would be among Tennessee fans if it were announced tomorrow that Chaney was coming back to run the offense.
“I think the feeling would be positive,” Hyams said.
Chaney was out of a job after Butch Jones was named Tennessee’s new head coach. Arkansas, which had just hired Bret Bielema, had an opening, and Chaney was hired. Seemingly, it was a clash of styles – Bielema with the power-running philosophy, Chaney with the pass-happy history. And the marriage ultimately didn’t work.
“It didn’t seem that he and Bielema were on the same page,” said Nate Allen, a longtime Arkansas media member. “Certainly not like Bielema and Dan Enos, Chaney’s Arkansas successor.”
Chaney’s offenses at Arkansas ranked 100th and then 63rd nationally, but were the flip-side of what they had been at Tennessee: Much better running (top 30 each year) than passing (below 100 each year).
It just wasn’t enough. Arkansas only scored 20.7 points per game, 12th in the SEC, in Chaney’s first year there. The Razorbacks did improve to 31.9 points per game the next year, but it was still only seventh in the SEC. It didn’t help that the Razorbacks’ personnel was young, and much of it had been recruited to play in Bobby Petrino’s high-octane spread system.
“Obviously Chaney’s a good coach or else he wouldn’t still wouldn’t be getting jobs,” Allen said. “But obviously it didn’t fit.”
After the 2015 season, new contracts were announced for six of Bielema’s assistants, not including Chaney. The school said a new deal for Chaney was being finalized. But before it could be Chaney, who still had one year left on his contract, went north.
When he arrived at Pittsburgh, Chaney pointed out that while he was going to a pro-style offense, that made him unusual.
“When you play us, it’s harder to prepare for us now because we’re the weirdos,” Chaney said, according to a story on Pitt News, the school’s student newspaper. “When we started in the spread, we were the weirdos, ‘cause we were the only ones doing it. Now we’re damn near the only ones doing what we do.”
Everything went awry in the second quarter of Chaney’s first game at Pittsburgh, when star tailback James Conner suffered a season-ending injury. Pittsburgh’s offense never quite recovered, and ranked 82nd nationally, including 99th in passing. Quarterback Nathan Peterman, who had been with Chaney at Tennessee, didn’t put up big numbers, but did go six games without an interception.
Chaney was also dealing with an offensive line that wasn’t great, so the passing game ended up better than the run game.
“It’s too easy to use the loss of Conner as a crutch, but the rushing numbers did go down,” said Jerry DiPaola, Pittsburgh beat writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Chaney had all season to adjust to the loss of the reigning ACC Player of the Year — he was hurt in the second quarter of the opener — and the offense never found a true identity.”
Chaney’s first press conference at Georgia, last August, saw him loose and witty. The tone of his second presser, as a disappointing season was wrapping up, was more somber, as he took responsibility and vowed to look at fixing things.
Georgia had a freshman quarterback in Eason, and a line that struggled, and could have had more stars at receiver. The result was an offense that struggled scoring passing (97th nationally) but also overall (87th) and with its identity. Often, the play-calling seemed geared to a more physical line, when it didn’t have that.
“You’d love to be a downhill team, but you do have a young quarterback that has played in the gun more,” Chaney said last December. “So you have to find some happiness there. As we work through that sometimes it didn’t work out as well as we’d like to. There was a little contradiction with philosophies in regards to that, as we worked through it.”
— Tom Schott (@schottts) July 1, 2017
A few weeks later, on signing day, Chaney said he was looking to “freshen up” the offense. And there were signs of that this spring, using tailbacks, tight ends and receivers alike in the slot, indicating something new.
It really is a contradiction of philosophies: Do you spread out and air it out, like Chaney did at Purdue, and put up big numbers? Or do you try to be more physical, especially when you have great tailbacks?
The answer, Chaney would probably say, is to find that happy medium, and be good at both. But that would be almost anyone’s philosophy.
Tiller, the all-time winningest coach at Purdue, is in failing health. This summer a number of his former players and assistants came to visit him, and among them was Chaney. A Purdue official snapped a photo and tweeted it out with the message: “Ah, the memories, stories and tales. Two @BoilerFootball coaching masterminds – Joe Tiller and Jim Chaney.”
Kubat, the retired beat writer, had a final thought for Chaney, the man he enjoyed covering all those years.
“He’s a great guy,” Kubat said. “And I hope he’s able to pull out of this.”