By Jeff Greenberg
In some professions, there is a clear line of progression in terms of where you start and how you work your way up the ranks. For instance, in medicine, you don’t get to jump right into practicing medicine after a few years in medical school. There’s a process to follow to become a doctor. It usually entails four years of medical school. Upon graduating from medical school you enter into a residency program, which can last anywhere from three to seven years. After completing your residency, you can become licensed as a practicing physician. For those that wish to specialize, a two-plus year fellowship may be involved as well. Bottom line, it’s a clear process to get from point A to point B.
That is not the case in coaching, particularly in coaching college football. Make no mistake, there is a process in moving through the ranks of college football. However, that process can take on many forms and follow different paths to the same job. Some coaches are former players, some are not. Some coaches start out as graduate assistants at the FBS level, while others start out as full-time assistants in the junior college ranks. Then there are those coaches who fall into a few categories. One such coach is Darrin Chiaverini, the Offensive Coordinator for the Colorado Buffaloes.
In this edition of The Extra Point, we sat down with the Buffs’ play-caller to talk about his career path in coaching. Coach Chiaverini is entering his third season on Coach Mike MacIntyre’s staff at his alma mater. Prior to his coaching career, Coach Chiaverini played wide receiver for the Buffaloes. He’s one of Colorado’s top ten receivers of all-time and played in three bowl games for the Buffaloes. Following his career at Colorado, he was a 5th round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns. Coach Chiaverini had a seven-year professional playing career. He began his coaching career in the junior college ranks in 2007 and has worked his way up through the ranks to his current position at Colorado.
- When did you know you wanted to coach? – “I always knew at some point in my life that I was going to be a coach. I didn’t know how long I would get to play football, because I had dreams of playing in the NFL. When you’re in college and trying to make those dreams a reality, you know there are no guarantees that you’re going to make it happen. I ended up playing in the NFL for seven years, so I put the thoughts of coaching on the back burner at the time. But I always saw myself becoming a coach when my playing days were over. I love this game and what it can do for young men in their lives, on and off the field. Being a coach is what would allow me to stay in the game and help other guys reach their potential, and reach their own dreams. So I always knew the path I wanted for my career when my playing days ended.”
- Who has given you the most important advice on how to navigate a career in coaching, and what was that advice? – “The best advice I ever got was from my old position coach at Colorado, who’s now the receivers’ coach for the New York Jets, Karl Dorrell. He really helped me when I was getting into coaching. The best advice he ever gave me was to focus on the job you’re in right now. Don’t worry about the next job. Worrying about the next job will hold you back from being the best you can be today. Be the best coach you can be today, in the job you’re in today. I’ve really tried to take that to heart since the first coaching job I had. I’ve seen a lot of guys get so swept up in the “next job” that they don’t do well in their current role, and then wonder why they’re not going anywhere. It’s easy to get distracted by the process of the coaching life, but that ends up being a disservice to the players in your room today. In the end it will end up being a disservice to you too. Focus on today. Focus on the players sitting right in front of you today.”
- You were in a co-offensive coordinator role in your second year of coaching. Were you ready to call plays so early in your career? – “Well, I was working with a great coach named Tom Craft at the junior college we were at, Mt. San Antonio. I learned a ton from working with Tom. He really helped develop my coaching style and my approach to the game. I think you have to have the ability to coach to do this job, but I also think everybody needs somebody to help you develop that ability. That’s what being with Coach Craft did for me. He helped me develop as an offensive mind in terms of how to practice, how to scheme and how to attack defenses. With regards to your question, I don’t think anybody is ever ready that first time it’s your turn to call the plays. You can never really be ready until you get into it and start doing it. There’s no substitute for experience. Was I ready to do it? No, but I was ready to jump in and try to do it. Those experiences have built up over time to get me to where I am today. But everybody has to start somewhere and you have to have the confidence in yourself to know it’s a learning process.”
- Early in your career, you were selected to the NFL-NCAA Coaches’ Academy. What were some of the key takeaways for you from that experience? – “The main thing that stuck with me from that experience was to make sure you are the author of your own identity. People are going to have perceptions of you through everything you do in this job. They’re going to watch how you are in front of the media. They’re going to watch how you interact with your colleagues. They’re going to watch how you are with the players. Somebody is always watching how you conduct yourself in different forums. If you’re going to have a career in coaching you’re going to want people to respect you and how you work. That respect is earned through your actions. It’s never given. It matters how you build relationships with other coaches at all levels, and how you keep those relationships alive as time passes. So cultivating my identity as a coach is something that’s important to me and it’s something that I’m always working on. Your identity and reputation are your resume in this profession.”
- How different is that from what you had to do as a player to be successful enough in high school to make it to Colorado, and then successful enough at Colorado to make it into the NFL? – “It really is very different. As a player you become singularly focused on what you have to do to be successful in your role on the team and in the game. As a coach, you’re trying to bring a collection of players together and get them to understand all of their roles as part of a unit in order to win. Your job is to tie all of those individuals into the bigger picture so that they can see why their roles are important to the team. I think what happens in many cases is that many players want to coach and think they can coach because they played the game at a high level. But you still have to learn how to be a coach. I had to do it and work my way through the ranks and learn what it means to have your own room, teach the guys in your own room and make sure the guys in your room help the team win. A lot of players want to step right into position coach jobs at the FBS level, and that just isn’t the way it works in my opinion. You have to develop yourself as a coach and you have to have an understanding of the bigger picture to do that.”
- How are you a better coach now than you were when you started in 2007? – “There’s nothing more valuable than experience. Just going through it in this profession. Sometimes you have to fail before you succeed. The advice I always give young coaches is to not be afraid to fail. It’s going to happen. But when it happens you have to learn and push yourself. You have to learn new ways to reach your players. You have to find different ways to bring them together as a team. At the end of the day, it’s not about the X’s and O’s. It’s about the players on your roster committing to each other to be better as one than they are as individuals. I strongly believe in that first and foremost. Does scheme come into play at some point? Yes, but the top teams in college football have great players that play for each other and put the team’s success first.”
- When you got the call to come back and coach at Colorado, what was going through your mind about that opportunity to coach at your alma mater? – “The only way I can really describe it is that it’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to work for this program and this institution. I love the University of Colorado. I’ve known Lance Carl, the associate athletic director, for twenty years. He was one of the key guys in me getting this opportunity, along with Rick George and Coach MacIntyre. I always thought and hoped that I would return to Colorado. I just didn’t know the when or the how, and I’m grateful in how it ended up working out for me. I love being back here. We’ve had some success and we’ve had some lows, but I think we’re building it right and we’re getting closer to where we want to be.”
- Before you came back to Colorado you were in a good situation at Texas Tech with coaches that gave you an opportunity to coach at this level. It’s never easy, as a coach, to leave a good situation for another one. What would be your advice to young coaches on how to navigate those situations? – “First and foremost, you have to be honest and up front with guy you’re working for at that school. When Colorado started to show interest in bringing me back as a coach, I went right into Coach Kingsbury’s office to discuss the opportunity. We had become really good friends over those couple of years and I really trusted his guidance and his opinion. That was a big deal to me because we didn’t know each other before I got to Texas Tech. He told me, “Chev, obviously I want you to stay here, but you can’t turn down the chance to go back and coach at your alma mater.” Having played at Texas Tech before he coached there, he knew exactly what I was going through because he went through it himself. He knew this was my opportunity to do the same. So you need to be honest and you also need to follow your heart. You have to trust your instincts.”
- As a coach, you were part of a big turnaround with the Riverside program. Knowing Colorado was in rebuilding mode, what were your expectations when you got to Boulder? – “I wasn’t sure what we had when I got here. I knew we were really sound on the defensive side of the ball. We had some good players on that side of the ball and they gave us trouble every day in practice. I knew we had a lot of experience on our side of the ball that just hadn’t been able to get over the hump. We were able to move forward by playing solid defense and get the offense to keep improving. The guys in that locker room were ready to win. I think Coach Mac does a great job of retaining players and developing those players. So when we started that season we were able to get on a roll, and it’s because we had good players who were ready to work and do anything to win. That was a special season and we’re working every day to get to that level again and stay at that level.”
- What did Coach Mac tell you on your first day in Boulder that he expected from you? – “I think one of the strengths of Coach Mac as a head coach with his staff is that he wants you to be yourself. He doesn’t try to change who you are as a coach. He’s always there for advice when needed, but he really allows you to be the coach you are when he hired you. That’s something I appreciated from day one because my coaching style is a little different. I’m more of a type-A personality who can be aggressive in terms of my expectations of my guys. I think Coach Mac knew that the same toughness I brought as a player was the same toughness that I brought to the table as a coach.
- Up to this point in Boulder, you’ve been the co-offensive coordinator. This year the play-calling responsibilities are being handed over to you. What have you done this offseason to prepare yourself for that role? – “I’ve taken a lot of time to reach out to people I respect in the coaching community. Guys like Coach Kingsbury at Texas Tech and Coach Cumbie at TCU who run a similar system to what we run. Just taking the time to pick their brains and talk football with them to get ready for this opportunity. At the end of the day, as I mentioned before, I’ve got stay true to who I am and it’s got to reflect my identity. It’s got to be the offense and scheme that I believe in. I’m excited to do some things I want to do and I’m confident in what we’re going to be calling on Saturdays. I’m working every day to be ready for this moment.”
- Speaking of identity, what’s it like for you, as former Colorado player, to go out on the road and be able to recruit to the school where you had success and the school you love? – “It’s a special thing for me. When I recruit a player to this school, I can tell them what it’s like to be a student-athlete at Colorado, because I did it here. I can tell them what it’s like to play at Folsom Field, because I did it. It allows to me to be real with them too because I can tell them the highs and lows that I went through as a player. I think that’s important. It’s important to be truthful and be open with them about what it’s really like to play football for 4-5 years in college. Again, the key for me is that when I’m talking about that with a recruit and his family, I’m talking from direct experience at the school I recruiting them to play at. They also see and know that I wouldn’t have come back here if I didn’t think it was a great place. Yes, it’s a great place to go to school and get and education, but I believe in my heart that Colorado is one of the elite football programs in the country. We’re climbing our way back to where we belong. The commitment is there and the history is there. Our future is bright.”
- With regards to the players, how has the college game changed the most, in terms of the locker room atmosphere, compared to when you were a player? – “Kids are faced with a lot more distractions and pressure than we were when we played, in my opinion. When a kid has a bad game it’s different for them now. In the old days you would go back to your room or back to your apartment and the next day you would go watch the film. Then it’s on to the next game and the next week. Now, a player has a bad game, and there are people on social media tagging them to video clips, the mistakes they made and relentlessly bashing the kid. I think it’s harder for players to play in today’s world. They have to be more focused and more resilient that we had to be when we played college football.”
- Do you watch a lot of football outside of Colorado football during the season? – “Yes. I probably watch too much football(laughing). I watch a lot of college football and a lot of pro ball. It’s been part of my life since I was 9 years old and I love it.”
- Are there certain coaches or programs you like to watch or that grab your attention more when they’re on television? – “No doubt. For instance, I’ve been really impressed with what Lincoln Riley is doing on offense at Oklahoma. He’s really developed some neat things from the air raid and incorporated 11 and 12-personnell concepts. I think he’s been really innovative in how he runs the offense as a whole. I have the utmost respect for Coach Kingsbury and believe he’s been one of the best offensive minds in the country for the last 8-10 years. Then I look at guys coming up and doing great things that I respect like Sonny Cumbie at TCU and Jake Spavital at West Virginia. I follow the guys I know and respect and look to when it’s time to talk ball and get better.”
- How have you and your wife been able to manage the coaching life as a family and make it work? – “It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s tough on your family. I was fortunate that my kids were born when I was still playing football. I was able to spend more time with them then and when I was coming up through the junior college ranks because the time constraints aren’t the same as they are at this level. When you get to this level, it puts a lot of stress on a young family. So I was fortunate in that respect. And I have been fortunate that my wife, Shannon, is the mother, the wife and the person that she is. She deserves the credit. When you move from job to job, it’s the coach’s wife that picks up the burden of moving, selling/buying houses, changing schools for your kids, just everything involved with the move. It takes a commitment that not everybody has in their DNA. It takes a special person to be a coach’s wife. I would be nowhere without Shannon.”
- Regarding family, you’re in a position now where your son is playing for the University of Colorado. What is it like for you, personally, to see him put that uniform on? – “There’s no question that it is really surreal to think about. I was a 17 or 18-year-old kid wearing number 6, and now I get to see my son at that age, wearing the #6 jersey for Colorado. It’s special for our family and not every family gets to experience something like this. I’m just grateful for it all and it reinforces to me that some things are just meant to be. It’s up to us to find our way there and work hard to get there. There was a reason for me to come back to Colorado and help this program get back to where it belongs.”
- What do you think is the biggest misconception that fans have about a coach’s life? – “I think people tend to forget sometimes, in the heat of the moment, that we’re just people too. We have sons and daughters like they do. We’re not machines that do nothing but coach football. I don’t think they realize the effects all of the negativity can have on a family when things aren’t going well. We as coaches are ready to handle that, but that doesn’t mean our families are ready to handle it. We’re just trying to work as hard as we can for the same goals the fans have and I think that gets lost in today’s society. I mean, we’re in the off-season now and we’re putting in fifteen hour days. There is no off-season. That alone puts more strain on our families. So I think the family side of this job is the part that is hard to fathom as a fan or for somebody that hasn’t walked in a coach’s shoes.”
- If you went back to 2006 and a young Darrin Chiaverini was standing in front of you, what advice would you give him about the career he was getting into with coaching? – “Knowing what I know now, I would tell him to just be patient, keep your head down and keep working. I think I used to get impatient when I first started coaching. We would be doing well where I was and I would feel like I wasn’t getting the opportunities I deserved. I would remind him that it’s a process, but that you can enjoy the process too. You’ve got go through this process in order to get better and you have to be willing to put that work into it. If you work hard the opportunities will come in due time. Be true to yourself, control your identity and work hard.”