I probably met – or at least saw -- Tom Butters when I was 12 years old.
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It was the summer of 1961, when Butters was a 23-year-old righthanded pitcher for the Charlotte Hornets of the Sally League. I spent most of that summer in old, ramshackle Griffith Stadium, watching the Hornets stumble to a second-division finish in the Sally League. The losing record didn’t matter. It was a great place to spend the summer, watching the mostly afternoon games and waiting outside the tiny locker room to get autographs. I have a sharp memory of future Major Leaguers Rich Rollins and Bernie Allen. My personal favorite was Minnie Mendoza, a Charlotte legend who spent 10 of his 19 professional seasons playing third base in the Queen City. I even remember 40-year-old pitcher Sandy Consuegra, who had won 16 games for the White Sox seven years earlier, but who appeared in just two games for the ’61 Hornets.
But I don’t remember Tom Butters, who appeared in 46 games for Charlotte that summer, winning five of 13 decisions and finishing with a 3.00 ERA. By all accounts, he was an interesting prospect – relying on a superior fastball, but using the knuckleball as a change of pace.
I’m still not sure why Butters – who belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization (he was signed personally by Branch Rickey) – was loaned to the second-highest farm team in the new Twins organization. It’s all very confusing and probably has something to do with expansion baseball. Charlotte had long been a farm for the Washington Senators (hence the name of the ballpark), but Clark Griffith had just moved his franchise to Minnesota, making room for an expansion team in Washington (one that would later move to Texas).
Somehow, Butters ended up in the Twins organization for that summer. He was back in the Pirates’ system a year later, reaching the big club late in the ’62 season.
By that time, my family had moved to Durham and I wouldn’t encounter Tom Butters again until my freshman year at Duke, when I was working in the Sports Information Office and I got to work fairly closely with the Blue Devils’ first-year baseball coach.
Butters didn’t have much to work with in those days. He didn’t have a single baseball scholarship and Jack Combs Field was as rundown and ramshackle as the old Clark Griffith Stadium in Charlotte. Almost nobody sat in the stands in those days. On nice days there would usually be a few dozen students sunning themselves on the hill behind the first-base dugout, but attendance was pitiful.
I don’t remember Butters complaining about his fate. Instead, he worked to groom the ballpark as nicely as possible, often working the infield himself. He found talent in a myriad of places. His best players were refugees from the football team (quarterback Leo Hart was a pitching ace) and basketball team (Tim Teer and John Posen were his best hitters). Duke went 12-19, 14-18 and 17-16 in his three seasons at the helm. I was usually the official scorer for the home games in those years, charged with phoning a linescore and a brief game summary into the local newspapers, which didn’t bother to staff the games.
That’s when I got to know Tom and I learned about the misfortune that prematurely ended his career as a baseball player. He was just earning his place as a Major Leaguer as a 26-year-old in 1964, when he appeared in 28 games for the Pirates, pitching 64 innings with a 2.38 ERA. With longtime bullpen ace Roy Face aging, Butters and 27-year-old Al McBean were projected as the team’s relief anchors as the team gathered for spring training in 1965.
Unfortunately, Butters didn’t get there. He was driving to Florida with his family when his car was rear-ended by a speeding driver outside Fayetteville, N.C. The resulting injuries essentially ended Butters’ career – he pitched briefly and ineffectively in ’65, but was released by the team before June.
His personal tragedy proved to be one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to Duke University. Butters turned to athletic administration, first at his alma mater Ohio Wesleyan, then at Duke. He became the face of Duke athletics for almost a quarter century; first as a world-champion fund-raiser, then in two decades as the school’s athletics director.
Butters passed away Thursday night after a long illness. He was 77 years old.
It’s hard to imagine where Duke would be today without Tom Butters. Of course, Butters is most famous for his gutsy to decision to hire Mike Krzyzewski as Duke’s basketball coach in the spring of 1980, then to stick by the embattled young coach as his program struggled in 1982 and 1983.
It was the kind of gamble that makes or breaks careers.
Understand that when Coach Bill Foster told Butters in February of 1980 that he was leaving to take a lucrative job offer from South Carolina, Duke was a very good job. Vic Bubas had taken the school to three Final Fours in the 1960s and Foster had led the Devils to the NCAA championship game in 1978, then to the Elite Eight before his departure in 1980.
It would not have been hard for Butters to hire a safe, established coach.
Instead, he reached for greatness.
His first try was a Hail Mary. Butters picked up the phone and called the best coach in college basketball (in his opinion) and offered Indiana’s Bobby Knight the job. He wasn’t surprised when Knight turned him down, but he had to try. The real reason he called was to ask Knight’s advice about who he should hire.
Knight was ready with a recommendation – but it wasn’t Krzyzewski. Instead, the first name he offered Butters was protégé Bob Weltlich, who was in the process of building an SEC championship team at Ole Miss (the Rebels would win it in 1982).
Butters also got advice from former Duke standout Steve Vacendak, who was due to join the Duke staff later that summer as an associate athletic director. Before Vacendak started work, he suggested that the Blue Devil athletic director take a close look at the young coach from Army with the unpronounceable name.
Learning that Mike Krzyzewski was – like Weltlich – a protégé of Knight, Butters called the Indiana coach a second time to ask him about the young coach at Army. Knight raved about Krzyzewski and explained that he hadn’t mentioned him the first time because he didn’t think Butters would be interested in pursuing a young coach with a less-than-impressive 73-59 career record.
Butters met with Krzyzewski in Lexington, Ky., where Duke was playing in the NCAA Tournament. He was impressed by his first meeting with the 32-year-old coach. So impressed, in fact, that he set up a second interview in Durham. Butters later said that after that meeting, all his instincts told him to make the hire. But how could he hire an unknown coach coming off a 9-17 season at Army?
Krzyzewski was about to leave town without the job, when Butters decided to trust his instincts and offer the job to the Army coach. He sent Vacendak, who was always Krzyzewski’s biggest booster, to the airport to grab him before he could fly away.
"Certainly, I’d have to say that Mike was my preference all along, but it was still Tom’s decision," Vacendak told me a few years ago.
The new coach was introduced to the media the next evening. That morning’s Durham Morning Herald confidently predicted that the name of the new Duke coach would start with a ‘W’ – either Weltlich, Old Dominion coach Paul Webb or Foster’s top assistant Bob Wenzel. Krzyzewski’s name never appeared in print as a candidate for the Duke job.
"Just call me Coach ‘Who’," Krzyzewski joked at the press conference. On a more serious note, he also suggested that anybody who had trouble with his name could call him Coach K.
Naturally, Butters came under considerable fire for gambling the Duke coaching job on the young unknown. And he had to defend that choice in the next few years as Krzyzewski struggled to get his program up and running while his neighbors were winning national championships in Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
Oh, it wasn’t so bad in 1981 when Krzyzewski engineered an NIT run (before NCAA expansion, when the NIT wasn’t quite the joke it is today). But when his 1982 team finished 10-17 and his 1983 team stumbled to an 11-17 finish, Butters had to deal with an angry mob of fans and alums who styled themselves "Concerned Iron Dukes."
The 1984 team got off to a better start, but stumbled to four straight losses to open ACC play. With the disgruntled fans howling louder than ever, Butters gave them his answer – he called Krzyzewski into his office and gave him a five-year contract extension.
That was the turning point. Coach K’s young team won eight in a row after the new deal was announced and upset No. 1 North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. That ’84 team earned Coach K his first NCAA trip … and he hasn’t missed since.
Later, when Krzyzewski became acknowledged as one of the great coaches in the game, he became the target of pro teams – most seriously by the Celtics in 1989, the Trail Blazers in 1994 and the Lakers in 2004. In each case, he cited the relationship he formed with Butters – and the strong support Butters and the Duke administration gave him during his building years -- as a key factor in his decision to stay at Duke.
WORLD CHAMPION FUND-RAISER
If hiring Krzyzewski is the first gem in Tom Butters legacy, the Iron Dukes would have to be the second jewel in his crown.
The Duke athletic department was not in great shape when Butters arrived at Duke. The lack of support for his baseball team was typical for the schools’ "non-revenue" sports. Nobody had any money. Even football and basketball labored under a disadvantage – the football team had the worst locker and weight room facilities in the ACC and Wade Stadium was as famous for the splinters in its wooden bleachers as for hosting the 1942 Rose Bowl.
Duke Indoor Stadium was not in much better shape. ACC TV commentator Billy Packer even suggested that the aging, unattractive facility was the biggest drawback to the school’s efforts to remain a basketball power.
The school – with football crowds dwindling and not enough basketball money coming in – simply didn’t have the finances to address those problems.
Butters left his job as baseball coach to attack the problem. He became the school’s primary athletic fund-raiser, while serving as an assistant athletic director, a special assistant to Chancellor Kenneth Pye and then as associate athletic director under Carl James.
He turned the Iron Dukes into one of the nation’s most successful booster organizations – so much so that The Sporting News labeled him "the world champion of fund-raiser."
When he succeeded James as athletic director in 1977, he worked to refurbish Wade Stadium. He came up with an innovative way to replace the old facility’s ancient press box. Telling reporters that he couldn’t justify spending millions of dollars for a structure that would be used just six or seven times a year, he went into partnership with the Duke Medical Center to contract a building that would be used as a Health Facility for the 360 or so days it wasn’t serving as a football press box.
He raised the money for new football locker rooms and a weight facility (the Murray Center). He funded a number of what became known as "Olympic Sports" – including the growth from nothing of the women’s athletic program at Duke.
Not only did he make his brilliant hire in men’s basketball, but he refurbished Cameron Indoor Stadium, turning the dump that Billy Packer wanted to tear down into one of basketball’s most revered icons.
Over the years, he hired a number of brilliant coaches – from John Rennie in soccer to Dan Brooks in women’s golf to Gail Goestenkors for women’s basketball.
Not everything Butters touched turned to gold. He struggled to restore the Duke football program to glory, but never found the right man there, as he did in basketball. Well, he did find one pretty good coach in Steve Spurrier. It was Butters who encouraged head coach Red Wilson to hire the former Heisman Trophy winner – who had just been dumped during a coaching change at Georgia Tech – as his offensive coordinator. And when the USFL folded in 1987, Butters was quick to hire the out-of-work Spurrier to become head coach.
He was rewarded by Duke’s best three-year run (20-13-1) in between the early 1960s and David Cutcliffe’s recent three-year spurt. But it was too good – Spurrier was lured away by his alma mater, Florida, where he won a national championship.
But even if Butters struggled with the football program, it’s hard to argue with his overall impact on Duke athletics. The program he handed off to Joe Alleva in 1998 was infinitely stronger than the one he had inherited two decades earlier. Under Butters, Duke had become financially stable and had enjoyed success over a wide variety of sports. The Blue Devil basketball program evolved from a nice, successful regional winner to one of the best – if not THE best – program in the country … thanks to the man Butters had the guts to hire in 1980 (and to support so strongly from 1981-84).
And he did it without ever sacrificing Duke’s high academic or ethical standards.
When Butters was hired as athletic director in 1977, Duke had never won a national championship in any sport. The Devils have won 16 NCAA titles since – 13 of those banners earned by coaches hired by Butters.
Certainly current AD Rick White and his staff deserve credit for Duke’s current strong position, but they would acknowledge that their success was built on the strong foundation that Butters laid.
It’s a shame he never got to realize his potential as a baseball pitcher. With a little better luck, Butters might have enjoyed a long, lucrative Major League career.
But it’s unlikely that he would have accomplished nearly as much with the Pirates as he did at Duke.