Garret Chachere -- California’s new defensive tackles coach -- has made nine stops in his collegiate coaching career, but none of them more impactful than his seven-year stint at his alma mater: Tulane.
Chachere played for the Green Wave from 1987 to 1988, but, according to him, “play is a real strong word.”
“I was on the team,” Chachere chuckles. “The position I was at was running back, and I was more of a special teams player. I hurt my neck early on in my career, so that cut what I’m sure was a future-NFL Hall of Fame career short. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have been one of the top 100 players of all-time as a 5-foot-8, 180-pound, slow running back.”
But, it wasn’t his time as a player at Tulane that shaped Chachere. It was the two years he spent as coach, chaperone, parent and de facto real estate agent after Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans. Just as the Green Wave was preparing for the 2005 season, the super storm made its first landfall between Hallandale Beach and Aventura in Florida on August 25.
“We evacuated, and we went to Jackson, Miss., and we just assumed that it was going to be one of these deals that, in 24 hours of 48 hours, we’d be back, and that’s about how many pairs of clothes that we packed,” Chachere says. “We had had some close calls the previous two years, in which nothing really happened.”
On August 29, 2005, that changed, as the now-category 5 storm made its second landfall near Buras-Triumph, La.
“Once we realized the hurricane was going to hit New Orleans, and where it was going to hit New Orleans, we evacuated the players really quickly and, to be honest with you, we picked up students that were being dropped off, on our way out. They were getting out of cabs, and we took them on the bus with us,” Chachere says.
“It became apparent, very quickly, that this was going to be something bigger than anyone had ever experienced,” Chachere says. “Eventually, we loaded them up from Mississippi, because we didn’t have any power in Mississippi for 48 hours. We were in a gym at Jackson State, and there was no power. We loaded them up in buses and brought them to Dallas, and we were in Dallas for about a month, stayed in the hotel there and just kind of [...] the kids didn’t have any clothes, didn’t have any way to get in touch with their parents [...] it was a very tough time, not only for coaches -- because we didn’t know what happened to our homes -- but obviously, and I don’t know if you remember this, but cell phone service was out. Anybody who had a cell phone who had an area code of Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana -- you couldn’t use your cell phone. It was a very anxious time for our players, for the coaches and it was just a very, very tough time.”
From there, the Tulane team and staff went to Ruston, La., to take up residence at Louisiana Tech, the future home of Chachere’s close friend, Sonny Dykes. But, at the time, Chachere wasn’t thinking about his job, the coaching profession or even football. It was about getting his charges to safety, putting out of his mind any thoughts about his own devastated home, which was submerged in 10 feet of water.
“We went to Louisiana Tech, where they were nice enough to let us go to school there for the fall. Kids basically lived in a dorm that was about to be condemned until we came and we needed the room,” Chachere says. “Louisiana Tech was very gracious in letting us stay there and letting our kids go to school there, and then, several people in the community opened up some homes and some rooms in the backs of homes for the coaches to live in.”
That season, the Green Wave played, essentially, 11 away games, with one game played at Louisiana Tech.
“We felt like, going into that season, we were going to win the conference, so for a football team that we felt good about winning the conference to end up with a 3-8, 3-9 season or whatever it was and being displaced, it was a tough time for us coaches, because we really cared for those kids,” Chachere says. “It’s one of those things that it was just amazing to be a part of. Still, to this day, it’s almost unbelievable that we went through it.”
By the time Chachere returned to New Orleans, he had lost his house, as many had. His hometown, his alma mater -- they were all inexorably changed. All that was left was a scar, writ in countless stains on the walls of his city -- the high-water marks that are still visable to this day. “Every house had a mark that told a story,” he says.
“My parents lost their house. When I say lost, I mean the house is still there, but it had to be totally gutted and everybody needed to start over,” Chachere says. “The city is still recovering from it. It was a very tough time. But, again, it was one of those things that, as you look back on it, you don’t know how you did it, but I guess the good Lord puts something in you that makes you carry on, and especially when you’ve got 100 boys that are counting on you to lead them and help them through a tough, tough situation ... You find the spirit and the leadership qualities to help them through it, but it’s just pure devastation of a city, my hometown, neighborhoods, basically peoples’ entire lives were lost.
“Things were lost for myself and others that you’ll never get back – letters, cards, antique furniture, you name it – things that you’ll never have again. It’s devastating, not only on a personal level for people, but the municipality of a great city and really the region of the southeastern United States. Everyone’s still recovering. Amazingly enough, you can go in parts of Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and New Orleans and it’s still recovering.”
Near 2,000 people lost their lives in the storm. Nearly one million people in the state of Louisiana lost power. $105 billion was rendered in damages. One estimate of the economic impact reached $150 billion.
“Things were lost for myself and others that you’ll never get back -- letters, cards, antique furniture, you name it -- things that you’ll never have again,” Chachere says. “It’s devastating, not only on a personal level for people, but the municipality of a great city and really the region of the southeastern United States. Everyone’s still recovering. Amazingly enough, you can go in parts of Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana and New Orleans and it’s still recovering.
“The businesses may be back up and running, whatever that business might be, and they may have put new paint on it and a new roof and all that, but they have not painted where the water mark was, just as a reminder. Or, they leave, on the front door, the marks made by the National Guard as they searched.”
While not the deepest mark, the storm – and his experiences with the Tulane team – has left its imprint on Chachere in more ways than one.
“I hadn’t thought about that in quite some time, really,” Chachere says. “After the storm, I did, but I hadn’t really thought about that in quite some time. I think it affects every way that I deal with these young men.”
When parents entrust their sons to college football coaches, they are, in effect, looking for people who they can rely on to be parents while they can’t be there. They’re looking for someone they can trust, who can teach not only the finer points of football, but of life, as well. As a husband and a father to three sons, Chachere knows a bit of what it takes to raise young men.
“I’ve never really thought about how it’s affected me, as far as my teaching and my coaching, and I consider coaching teaching,” Chachere says. “I feel like I teach the game of football, and teach the game of life. That’s what coaching’s all about.
“I don’t know if you think about it on a daily basis, but between that and being a father myself, there’s a lot of evolution that’s happened since Katrina, with everyone. I think you can’t help but be shaped by it and try to have young men understand and appreciate what they have and how fast that can be turned upside down, and how to appreciate what you have, as far as a scholarship, and the opportunity to play college football, appreciate that you have your health and your family’s health -- all those things that we all take for granted. You don’t take it for granted when you’ve been through something like that, and sometimes, you need a reminder of what can happen to you, and that it’s totally out of your control. That’s what that did, and I think it affects me.”