DURHAM, N.C. – Former Duke University Vice President and Director of Athletics Tom Butters passed away on Thursday night at the age of 77. He spent 30 years as an administrator at Duke and was the university’s athletic director from 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 also coached the Blue Devil baseball team from 1968-70 and founded the Iron Dukes fund-raising organization prior to replacing Carl James as director of athletics in 1977.
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, no-nonsense administrator, savvy negotiator and excellent judge of young talent.
Butters made a splash in 1980 with the hiring of Mike Krzyzewski, a young, relatively unknown basketball coach from Army. After Duke and Krzyzewski endured 17-loss seasons in his second and third years, Butters was undeterred and gave his coach a vote of confidence with a contract extension in the middle of the 1984 season. That decision has proved to be one of the best in college basketball history as Krzyzewski has established Duke as one of the premier programs in the country. Krzyzewski has guided the Blue Devils to five NCAA Championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 & 2015), 12 Final Four appearances and 13 ACC Tournament titles. Currently in his 36th season atop the Blue Devil program, Krzyzewski is the NCAA Division I all-time wins leader with 1,040 victories.
Butters’ talent for evaluating coaches is not limited to the success of Krzyzewski. During his 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. He suffered a heart attack on a golf course outside Baltimore in the summer of 1997 and, following quadruple bypass surgery, announced his intention to retire.
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.
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, N.C., and six grandchildren.
“Tom Butters was an icon in college athletics administration. And, by the way, two decades since his retirement, Tom continued to be a giant in college athletics. Simply put, no one served Duke University or the entire profession better than Tom. Not even close! 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.
“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 beloved wife Lynn and to Tom’s amazing family.”
– Dr. Kevin White, Duke University Vice President & Director of Athletics
“I loved Tom Butters. I will always be grateful to him for hiring me in the fall of 1977 when it was by no means clear to anyone but Tom that I was in any way qualified for the job. Over the next 20 years I came to admire and respect him for his unqualified integrity, his first-rate mind, and his commitment to doing the right thing rather than the easy thing. I have tried to emulate him in every phase of my professional life. He was a great man in every respect.”
– Dr. Chris Kennedy, Duke University Senior Deputy Director of Athletics
“My family and I are incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of Tom Butters. There may not be a person who had a greater positive impact on my career than Tom, who as the director of athletics, invited me to become the head coach at Duke University in 1980. Outside of my mom, no one believed in me more than Tom. The Cadet Prayer at West Point asks us ‘to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,’ and that always reminds me of Tom. That is how he lived his life – with great principle – and he provided that kind of guidance to me for 36 years. 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.
"I truly loved everything Tom stood for as a man, and it is safe to say he has always been a hero and role model of mine. His influence on Duke Athletics and well beyond is still felt throughout the college sports industry today. On a more personal note, we are so thankful he played such an enormous role in the Krzyzewski family for so long and we offer our deepest sympathies to his wife Lynn, his children and grandchildren, and so many of his close friends throughout the country.”
– Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University Head Men’s Basketball Coach and United States National Team Head Coach
“I was captivated by Tom Butters, from the first time I met the man. Some people you like, some you don’t. I really liked Tom Butters. I actually have pondered, over the years, whether it was the style of the man, or the content of his character, that I was most drawn to. It doesn’t really matter. I had great respect for both, and, consequently I was happy to work very hard for him. How many ADs recite poetry from memory to their staff? How many ADs have only a couple meetings with their staff throughout the entire year? How many ADs will beat you on the golf course and paste the dollar bill on his forehead for all to see?
“Tom Butters set an example for me, in style and character. Whenever I had something important to say to my team, to motivate them or to bring out the best in them, I would try to imitate Tom’s communication style. One thing is certain: Tom could hold your interest. He had a way of adding profundity to everything he said – I think because he truly believed in his mission at Duke. I once asked him what it was that made him so good at getting people to contribute money. Indeed, he said it was because he believed so strongly in the mission of Duke Athletics.
“We are no average athletics department. We are an exceptional athletics department. This is not just because we stand for both academics and athletics. I think it’s because Tom Butters and others before him set us on a good course, based on principles: Hire good people and let them do their job. Do what is right, not what is popular or ‘effective’ at the moment. Integrity is the only ‘brand’ you need. The student-athlete ALWAYS comes first. Expect a lot of people’s character, and this includes operational staff, coaches, and student-athletes. This is much more important than winning. In the world of athletics, Tom Butters was a statesman. I am extremely grateful that he welcomed me to Duke. I was proud to work for him.”
– Dan Brooks, Duke University Head Women’s Golf Coach
“My family and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Tom Butters. He was a great leader who truly valued and imparted upon all of us the great balance of academics and athletics which is a renowned cornerstone of Duke University. 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.
“Personally, I cannot adequately express my heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity that Mr. Butters gave me to lead Duke Women’s Lacrosse twenty years ago. I will always be indebted to him for the faith and confidence he showed in me as a young coach and the tremendous impact that being part of Duke Athletics has had on my family. My thoughts and prayers are with Lynn, Bret, Jill and their entire family as he will be dearly missed.”
– Kerstin Kimel, Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach
"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. He was a friend and a colleague and we had many good times together while we were serving Duke and Carolina as their respective Athletics Directors. My respect for him was immense. 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. My thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Lynn and the entire Butters family."
– John Swofford, ACC Commissioner & former University of North Carolina Athletic Director
A Memorial Reception will be held at on Sunday, April 10 at 3:00 p.m. at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Duke University, The Tom Butters Endowment, Box 90542, Durham, N.C. 27708.