- After nearly four decades scattered across the football map, Jim Chaney has nearly perfected the Bulldogs' offense with an unlikely quarterback.
Like many great coaching careers, Jim Chaney’s began with a cross-country ride in a hunk-of-crap car. The Georgia offensive coordinator started his coaching journey 37 years ago with a 30-plus hour drive in a Chevette with no floorboard. He has gone from small-college nose guard to one of the top QB developers in football, and on New Year’s Day his winding path took him back to Southern California, the place where his career started as a grad student at Cal State Fullerton, as Georgia outlasted Oklahoma in a classic offensive shootout to advance to the national title game.
Chaney has been an offensive coordinator in the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, plus a three-year stint in the NFL. At Purdue almost two decades ago, he helped Drew Brees blossom into one of the most prolific quarterbacks football has ever seen. This season, Chaney nurtured true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm—thrown into action after the Bulldogs’ starter Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury in the season opener—into the SEC Freshman of the Year. Fromm finished the regular season fourth in the nation in passing efficiency and has a 21-4 TD-INT ratio. Through it all, the quick-witted Missouri native has endured as one of the more engaging personalities in college football.
Chaney says his big break in coaching was when Cal State Fullerton dropped its football program after the 1992 season. He’d spent the better part of a decade there working for a kind man named Gene Murphy. Chaney had coached everything there at one point or another, from both offensive and defensive lines to receivers to quarterbacks to serving as offensive coordinator. He’d also served as the Titans’ recruiting coordinator. From there, Chaney ended up at Wyoming under head coach Joe Tiller.
“I was making $68,000 a year and when I went to Wyoming, Tiller was making $63,000 as the head coach,” Chaney says. “It was kinda of unheard of. It wasn’t till [Bobby] Bowden and [Steve] Spurrier when you started seeing the big separation [of head coaching salaries. Somewhere along the line, the head coach became the coup de grace.” We’ll circle back on that topic a little later.
Tiller was hired in 1996 at Purdue, where he brought the spread offense to the Big Ten, forcing defenses outside their comfort zones in an effort to cope with three-, four- and five-receiver sets and making opponents cover from sideline to sideline. The “basketball on grass” scheme made the Boilermakers nationally relevant in a season that was highlighted by a trip to the 2001 Rose Bowl. Chaney was Tiller’s play-caller.
In 2006, Chaney left Purdue to become the offensive line coach for the St. Louis Rams. He spent three seasons in the NFL before returning to the college game in 2009 at Tennessee, joining Lane Kiffin’s staff. His time in the NFL, and around Kiffin, changed his perspective on things from his Tiller days.
“Well, I don’t throw it every damn snap,” Chaney says. “Joe made the game fun. We’re [now] more situationally based. My post-NFL life has led me to believe in situational offense a lot more—short yardage, red zone, third downs. All the clichéd crap, but if you’re gonna win championships, you’ve gotta be successful in that. I think the proudest thing that we did from one year to the next—and obviously we’re [in Pasadena], which is a good thing—we are so much better in the red area and so much better on third downs than we were a year ago. I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
The Bulldogs rank No. 6 in the country in red zone offense after ranking No. 64 a year ago. They also rank No. 6 in third down conversations, up from No. 54 in 2016.
“We put a lot more time into it,” Chaney says. “It’s the added preparation. We’ve outworked those issues. All offseason, all summer, all training camp, we’ve spent a lot of time on third down and red zone. It’s paid off.”
Chaney has always been the quintessential grinder. Every off-season he conducts his own personal development process by delving into the most successful strategies from around the football world. “I usually take the top 10 offenses and the top 10 NFL offenses and get all their tape,” he says. “I knew we had a bunch of good halfbacks so I looked for a bunch of ways to get two tailbacks on the field. Oklahoma does it as good as anybody when they had [Joe] Mixon and [Samaje] Perine. I looked at a lot of their stuff. Penn State does a nice job. We’ll do it again. I’ve learned you better stay fresh. The RPO world, I’ve learned a lot about that. I don’t know if it’s all that. … What did we do this year that we didn’t do last year? I think we blocked a hell of a lot better. It’s the simple stuff. We didn’t turn it over and we blocked better.”
“I’ve never seen another coach watch as much film as him,” says Georgia wide receivers coach James Coley, a former offensive coordinator himself. “He’ll study all the opponents, watch all their film. Then go back a year and see what they did. Then go back three or four years and try to find film on someone who maybe was similar to how we play ball to see what they tried to do back then. Then, he’ll go, ‘Hey Coley, come in here. Let’s watch all of the two-point plays in the NFL tonight.’ We’ll sit there and watch a 150-play cut-up.
“There are some guys who just watch it, and then you have guys who can watch it and take from it. Then, you have the elite guys who can take from it and create rules on what they’re implementing. That’s him.”
Before hiring him at Tennessee, Kiffin was going through a list of names. He’d never met Chaney. Kiffin called Tiller. “I’ll never forget this, the first thing he told me was ‘If anyone doesn’t like Jim Chaney, something is wrong with them,’” Kiffin says. “Jim has a very unique ability to get along with everyone. He has a great sense of humor and that helps him because he always does a great job of getting guys to play for him.”
Georgia was Chaney’s third different school in three years. He left Knoxville after four seasons, then spent two at Arkansas and one at Pitt before head coach Kirby Smart brought him to Athens. The Dawgs struggled in Smart’s debut season, going 8–5 and just 4–4 in SEC play. There were some growing pains within the new staff, which shouldn’t be surprising.
“This second year has been easier,” Chaney says. “We’ve had a little bit more success and we’re doing what he wants to do now. It took me a while to get a feel for him and him for me. At the end of the day, I think we’re doing what he wants us to do on offense. We talk a lot about what the plan needs to be as we approach a team. I appreciate his input more than anybody when it comes to game-planning because those defensive guys see things differently than we do. ‘Hey Jim, have you thought about this because they can’t do this. They can’t do that.’ It’s fun to work for him.
“No detail is left untalked about. We dot every I and cross every T. It sometimes might be a little uncomfortable to talk about but it’s gonna be talked about. Kirby is diligent as heck about all that.”
This year was been an emotional one for Chaney. The Bulldogs had a thrilling season, capped off by an SEC title and a playoff run, but he also was saddened when Tiller, one of the biggest influences in his life, passed away in late September at 74. Murphy, his mentor from the Cal-State Fullerton days, died in 2011.
“He concentrated a lot at one o'clock on Saturday and didn’t get caught up in all the B.S.,” Chaney says of Tiller. “I was blessed to work nine years with Gene Murphy who was all about the joy of football; and then with Joe who was all about the business side of getting it right on game day. I’m really blessed to be that way, to have that background. It’s served me well. I know I’ve always tried to have a lot of fun with the game of football. But it’s not always fun. The stakes have gotten higher and the consequences for losing have become more difficult to deal with. It’s very difficult. But those two—my foundation was those two, helped me get through a lot of things.”
With the success Georgia is having, I asked Chaney, who turns 56 in a few weeks, if he still aspires to be a head coach.
“I have no desire,” he says. "None. That ship sailed. All of those years at Purdue, I had chances to take a few jobs. The ones I could get I didn’t want and the ones I wanted I couldn’t get. I resolved that all I want is to run the best offense I can, within the parameters of the head coach’s philosophy to win as many games as you can and be real comfortable being an offensive coordinator. I don’t think everybody has to aspire to be in the corner office. Quite honestly, Kirby deals with a lot of problems that I really don’t wanna be dealing with. I love our staff. I love our kids. I’m doing exactly what I think I need to be doing right now. To be a head coach, I don’t think that’s something that I’d be desiring to do.
“I just don’t know—with the energy and everything you gotta have to go balls-out—if I could do it justice. I know I can on offense. I just don’t know if I could do the whole ball of wax. Just being honest with yourself. You’ve gotta look in the mirror and know who you are. I think I know me pretty good.”
Chaney says he started to reconsider his ambition to become a head coach after leaving the NFL when he worked with Kiffin at Tennessee. “I just enjoyed working with Lane. It was fun running offense with him. To do that good, you’ve gotta be totally engrossed with what you do. I think sometimes I’m not the greatest multitasker in the world. My brain don’t work that way, and to be a head coach, you’ve got to be a spaz about a lot of things. Whether it’s right or wrong or good or bad, I’m comfortable with where I am and what I’ve done.”
As for whether that Chevette lasted long in his days back at Fullerton when he was living in Newport Beach?
“Hell no. I think I left it on the 405 [freeway] somewhere.”