Durham News: Sports

Duke’s Tom Butters dies at age 77

Tom Butters, athletic director for Duke University for 22 years, walks down the hall of Cameron Indoor Stadium after he announced his retirement Sept. 2, 1997.
Tom Butters, athletic director for Duke University for 22 years, walks down the hall of Cameron Indoor Stadium after he announced his retirement Sept. 2, 1997. CLiddy@newsobserver.com

Former Duke University Vice President and Director of Athletics Tom Butters passed away on Thursday night at the age of 77, according to university officials.

Perhaps best known as the man who hired basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, Butters served 30 years as an administrator at Duke and was the university’s athletic director 1977-1997.

Butters, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan and a former major league pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, arrived at Duke in 1967 as director of special events. He coached the Blue Devil baseball team, 1968-70, and founded the Iron Dukes fund-raising organization prior to replacing Carl James as director of athletics in 1977.

In 1997, Butters suffered a heart attack on a golf course outside Baltimore and, following quadruple bypass surgery, announced his intention to retire as A.D. at Duke.

The cause of death Thursday was not announced.

“Tom Butters was an icon in college athletics administration. ... Two decades since his retirement, Tom continued to be a giant in college athletics,” said Kevin White, Duke University’s present Director of Athletics. “Simply put, no one served Duke University or the entire profession better than Tom.”

As Duke’s director of athletics, Butters raised millions of dollars, improved facilities and insisted on excellence with integrity in his programs. He was widely recognized as a superb fund raiser, a no-nonsense administrator, savvy negotiator and excellent judge of young talent, Duke officials said in a prepared statement .

In 1980, Mike Krzyzewski was a young, relatively unknown basketball coach from Army when Butters hired him to lead Dukle’s program. After Duke and Krzyzewski endured 17-loss seasons in his second and third years, Butters gave his coach a vote of confidence with a contract extension in the middle of the 1984 season. That decision to stay the course proved to be one of Butters’ best; Krzyzewski established Duke as one of the premier programs in the country.

During Butters’ tenure, he also hired coaching standouts Jamie Ashworth (women’s tennis), Dan Brooks (women’s golf), Gail Goestenkors (women’s basketball), Kerstin Kimel (women’s lacrosse), Mike Pressler (men’s lacrosse), John Rennie (men’s soccer) and Steve Spurrier (football). He also oversaw the addition of the women’s soccer, women’s track & field and women’s lacrosse programs as well as the creation of the Duke Athletics Hall of the Fame.

As a member of the NCAA Basketball Committee from 1989-94, Butters was instrumental in the $1 billion deal struck with CBS Sports for the broadcast rights to March Madness. Closer to home, he raised millions of dollars to update facilities and initiated a scholarship endowment program that helped Duke focus its resources in sports that could be competitive for championships.

Butters, an avid golfer, also spearheaded the fund raising efforts for the redesign of the Duke University Golf Club in 1994 that helped bring the 2001 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship to Durham.

Duke Athletics rose to new heights under Butters with the school’s first NCAA team championship (men’s soccer; 1986), landmark back-to-back national titles in men’s basketball (1991-92), the Blue Devils’ first ACC football championship and bowl bid (1989) since the 1960s, and the emergence of one of the top women’s athletics programs in the country. Duke won 40 ACC team titles during Butters’ term as AD, almost twice as many as had been accomplished during its previous 24 years of conference membership.

Duke annually graduated over 95 percent of its student athletes during Butters’ regime, highlighted by nine Academic Achievement Awards for leading the nation in football graduation rate between 1981 and 1997. Butters’ efforts to promote athletic success as well as academic excellence was reward in 1996, when he received a lifetime achievement honor from the All-American Football Foundation, the Gen. Robert R. Neyland Award for Athletic Directors.

Butters also served as chairman of the College Football Association’s football championship study committee and was ranked as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful People in Sports during the mid-1990s. In 1999, Butters was inducted into the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame, which is located in a building named in his honor, the Schwartz-Butters Center adjacent to Cameron Indoor Stadium. He was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.

“His legacy stands as one of the greatest in this industry, for his track record of hiring outstanding coaches, innovating fundraising models, and, most importantly, creating a culture of unparalleled integrity at Duke that still stands as a model for all intercollegiate athletics,” White said.

“To be sure, Tom will be sorely missed, especially at Duke, where his impact is still felt daily nearly 20 years beyond his tenure. We offer our deepest sympathy to his wife beloved Lynn and to Tom’s amazing family.”

Butters is survived by his wife Lynn, daughter Jill Steidle and son-in-law Ward Steidle of Malvern, Pa., son Bret and daughter-in-law Nancy of Durham, and six grandchildren.

  Comments