Tom Butters, who made the ingenious moves of hiring Steve Spurrier and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, has passed away at age 77.
“Tom Butters was a big inspiration in my life,” Spurrier said Saturday. “I don’t know what I would have done without him hiring me twice at Duke University, 1980 and 1987, when I had no job. He’s one of the guys I owe my coaching career to. Good friend — wonderful friend.”
Butters, who died Friday, was Duke’s AD from 1977-97. He arrived at the school in 1967 as director of special events and also served as baseball coach from 1968-70 before moving fulltime into athletics administration.
“You didn’t have to be much of genius,” Butters said with a laugh when I asked him in an interview last fall how and why he hired Spurrier. Hired him twice, in fact: Spurrier was Duke’s offensive coordinator from 1980-82 under coach Red Wilson.
Having watched his work as an OC, Butters was a huge Spurrier advocate and started almost a personal mini-campaign on his behalf. Every time somebody would call Butters to ask him to recommend a candidate as a football coach, he’d tell them the same thing:
Finally, Butters hired Spurrier himself.
Butters already had taken a chance on a 33-year-old coach from Army named Krzyzewski in 1980 and stood behind with him through some lean years.
Showing that same loyalty, Butters in ’87 hired Spurrier – who was out of work after the USFL and Tampa Bay Bandits had folded – and stood behind him after a slow start. Spurrier, 41 at the time, had interviewed at four places but only Butters would hire him — which the Duke AD admitted later he found incredulous. In fact, he even admonished Florida for not trying to hire “one of their own” much earlier than 1990.
“He’s your product — your Heisman Trophy winner,” Butters said to Florida’s Bill Arnsparger, who had called for permission to interview Spurrier.
As Duke’s 17th football coach, Spurrier took over a program generally considered the doormat of the ACC. In his second stint in Durham, Spurrier coached his 1989 team to Duke’s first ACC championship in 28 years and got them in the All-American Bowl in 1989, the school’s first postseason appearance since the 1960 Cotton Bowl. He was named the ACC Coach of the Year for the second time.
While Butters was Spurrier’s boss, he also was Spurrier’s friend.
“We played a lot of golf together,” Spurrier recalled. “We socialized with he and his wife, Lynn. When we played in a tournament, the four of us would sit around the table and enjoy each other’s company. He would tell people, ‘An athletic director isn’t supposed to play golf and hang out with his football coach.’ ”
In his forthcoming autobiography “Head Ball Coach,” Spurrier writes, “Duke was a place where I could settle in and raise my family. But Duke was also a huge challenge, which is what I needed.”
But when Spurrier’s alma mater came calling, Butters knew he was going to go. That led to 12 years of championships and success for the Gators, including the school’s first SEC and national titles.
Both Butters and Spurrier loved to share the story of how Duke became a “football powerhouse” — running up the score on opponents such as Georgia Tech.
In a close call against Maryland, Duke nearly blew the game because of the Blue Devils’ self-inflicted conservatism on offense. Spurrier vowed he’d never take his foot off the pedal again.
Georgia Tech came to Durham next and his team was leading 41-14. But when Spurrier found out quarterback Steve Slayden was only one shy of the ACC record of six TD passes, he told him, “Steve, I’m going to give you a shot at the record, but you’ve got to do it in the normal course of the game. We’re not going to call timeout.”
Slayden hit Bud Zuberer for a score on a seam route and Duke beat Tech 48-14. That didn’t go over well with opposing coach Bobby Ross.
A Charlotte writer called Butters and asked him, “How do you feel about having a football coach who ran up the score last week against Georgia Tech? Do you believe in that?”
Butters paused briefly, possibly reflecting on the number of times he’d seen his team beaten up over more than two decades, then said: “Let me tell you something. I’ve been here for 22 years. And this is the first time anybody has accused my football coach of running up the score. And I kind of like it!”
Instantly, Spurrier and Butters were bonded for life.
To the end of his life, Butters expressed great admiration and even love for Spurrier.
“Steve Spurrier — and you can quote me — is an anomaly,” Butters told me in 2015. “If you surveyed 20,000 people, it would probably come out 50/50 as to whether they loved him or didn’t. I happened to be on the ‘did’ side.
“And in retrospect I would have hired Steve Spurrier today. Even if he couldn’t coach football. … He is a great man, in my mind. And I like him. So you are admittedly getting an extraordinarily biased opinion.”
(You can follow Buddy Martin on Twitter @buddyshow)