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.
Jacob Eason with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney in 2016. (Brant Sanderlin/AJC)
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.
Purdue and quarterback Drew Brees fell to Georgia in the 2000 Outback bowl. But otherwise Brees, with Jim Chaney calling plays, were very successful. (AJC FILE PHOTO)
“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.