Former Duke athletics director Tom Butters dies at 77

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, congratulates athletic director Tom Butters after Butters announced his retirement.
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, congratulates athletic director Tom Butters after Butters announced his retirement. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Tom Butters, who served as Duke’s athletics director for 20 years and most famously hired and stood by a young Mike Krzyzewski, died Thursday, according to a statement released by the university. Butters was 77.

“There may not be a person who had a greater positive impact on my career than Tom,” Krzyzewski said in a statement released by the school. “Outside of my mom, no one believed in me more than Tom.”

Butters first came to Duke in 1967 as director of special events. A former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Butters coached the Blue Devils baseball team from 1968-70 and founded the Iron Dukes fundraising organization before taking over as AD in 1977. Butters held that job until his retirement in 1997, which was brought on by a heart attack on a golf course outside Baltimore that summer and quadruple-bypass surgery.

In 1980, Butters took a chance on an unknown young basketball coach from Army: Mike Krzyzewski. Then 33 years old, Krzyzewski was coming off of a 9-17 season at his alma mater and had a five-year record of 73-59. Krzyzewski’s Duke tenure wasn’t an immediate success either, as he went 10-17 in his second year and 11-17 in his third. There were plenty of Duke boosters who had run out of patience with Krzyzewski and did their best to pressure Butters to fire him. But Butters didn’t waver and gave Krzyzewski a contract extension before he had made his first NCAA tournament.

“His uncompromising support and steadfast belief in our vision for Duke basketball was integral in building a program that stands among the very best in the country today,” Krzyzewski said of Butters.

Butters also hired Steve Spurrier, who revitalized Duke football from 1987-89 and clinched a share of the ACC title in his final year. Current Duke coaches Jamie Ashworth (women’s tennis), Dan Brooks (women’s golf) and Kerstin Kimel (women’s lacrosse) were hired by Butters. He also oversaw the addition of the women’s soccer, women’s lacrosse and women’s track and field programs.

“Myself and our alumni are eternally grateful that Mr. Butters had the vision to see women’s lacrosse as a great fit for Duke; the courage to add the sport and provide us with the resources to grow and build a world class program,” Kimel said in a statement.

Butters also served on the NCAA Basketball Committee from 1989-94 and was instrumental in the $1 billion deal with CBS Sports for the broadcast rights to the NCAA tournament.

“Tom was a unique and engaging man whose contributions to Duke University and the ACC were numerous and immeasurable, as was his love for both,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a statement. “His life interests and his talents were multiple, from being an excellent athlete to an able poet. That was Tom. He will be missed, but his legacy will go on.”

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.