Across the two decades he served as Duke University’s director of athletics, Tom Butters raised millions of dollars, improved facilities, insisted on excellence with integrity in his programs and ushered his department into the modern era of intercollegiate sports.
During Butters’ tenure from 1977 through 1998, the national profile of Duke Athletics rose to new heights with the school’s first-ever 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. The university also gained notice for near-100 percent graduation rates in almost every sport, with nine Academic Achievement Awards for leading the nation in football graduation rate between 1981 and 1997.
Known as a superb fund-raiser, no-nonsense administrator and savvy negotiator, Butters championed an effort to update many of the university’s facilities for athletes and students, some of which hadn’t been touched since their construction in the 1930s and 40s. He also initiated a scholarship endowment program to help Duke focus its resources in sports that could be competitive for championships.
He also went to great lengths to find the right fit in personnel decisions. His hiring of Hall of Fame basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski in 1980 is generally regarded as one of his chief accomplishments, along with extending Krzyzewski’s original contract during the 1984 season, before he had won any championships or guided Duke to the NCAA Tournament. But Butters made similarly wise decisions in several sports that paid off handsomely over the long term. For example, in 2005, seven years after Butters retired, 11 of Duke’s 19 head coaches were individuals he had hired almost a decade or more before.
At the height of his reign over Duke Athletics, Butters also spent six years as a member of the NCAA Basketball Committee, 1989 to 1994. He was instrumental in negotiating the NCAA’s $1 billion deal with CBS Sports for the broadcast rights to the tournament, a development that had far-reaching consequences for college athletics across the country. He 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.
A graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and a former baseball pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Butters arrived at Duke in 1967 as director of special events. He coached the Blue Devils’ baseball team from 1968-70, created the school’s fund-raising organization, the Iron Dukes, and served as associate athletics director as well as assistant to the chancellor before moving into the AD’s chair. He was recognized as a university vice president at the time of his retirement in 1998. In 1999 he was inducted into the Duke Sports Hall of Fame, which is located in the school’s Schwartz Butters Center, a facility named in his honor.
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