Dick Butkus is without question one of the two best players in the history of Illinois football. He won All-Big Ten honors both at center and middle linebacker, although he is best known for his exploits on the defensive side of the ball.
For those who never saw him play, if you saw a ball carrier suddenly hammered to the ground or moving swiftly backward, you knew Butkus was the tackler. He was so quick to diagnose and respond to opponent plays, he appeared like an arrow shot from a bow. It was as if everyone else was standing still.
Butkus helped Illinois to a Big 10 Championship and Rose Bowl victory during the 1963 season. He was a consensus All-American and one of the highest rated defenders ever voted on for the Heisman Trophy. He enjoyed a tremendous career with the Chicago Bears and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. NFL Films calls Butkus the greatest NFL player in history.
Butkus has also continued to support his beloved Fighting Illini. While he has spent most of his life after football in California as an actor and entrepreneur, he still returns frequently for Illini games. He cares deeply about his college team and follows its progress even when business keeps him away.
So why hasn't a statue been erected in his honor? Red Grange has one, and Butkus deserves no less. The Grange statue is featured on the West side of Memorial Stadium. A Butkus statue hovering menacingly over the East side practice field would be fitting. After all, he gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that field.
His nephew Luke Butkus played for Illinois also, serving as captain his senior season in 2001. He returned to campus this summer for the reunion of his Big Ten Championship team and was asked when the UI would erect a statue of his uncle. He responded, "When I am hired as a coach."
When that information was shared with the uncle, his humility prevented him from discussing it. He used it as an opportunity to promote his nephew for a future job at Illinois. After all, Luke is making a name for himself as a coach, most recently as a line coach with the Seattle Seahawks.
"He's doing a good job," Dick Butkus relates. "That new line coach really likes him. I think he's going about it in the right way. He's coached under a number of good people, starting when he was at Oregon for a couple of years. He was with the Bears and now with Seattle.
"I really would like to see that happen. I think he would do a great job recruiting the Chicago area. He knows those people. Aside from being a relative, I think he's really into it. And he's good. I've talked to people, and they weren't just saying these things because he's my nephew.
"I think that's more important than having a statue of me."
Few would argue with Luke's qualifications, but many would disagree with Dick's opinion of a statue in his honor. Still, he would rather discuss the future of Illinois football than his own accomplishments. He would love to see more top-rated high school players attend his alma mater.
"It still just baffles me why we can't get more 5-star kids going there. It tells me kids even in high school want to be seen on top now. They have high school games on TV now. They look at that, and they look at these big schools on TV all the time, and off they go. You look at USC. USC dips into Chicago and takes a receiver out of Chicago. I think they ought to be going to Illinois."
Butkus found more satisfaction in building a program than in maintaining one. He laments how few athletes are willing to consider the long-term benefit of working hard to reach a common goal.
"It's the attitude of the kids. To me, that's what happened at Illinois. They had lost 15 games straight when we were there. It's not, 'Boy, I'm gonna be on TV and in a Rose Bowl game.' It's, 'We're gonna make this team better. And we'll probably get more satisfaction out of building this thing into a good program.'"
Pete Eliot was just beginning his coaching career at Illinois when he recruited Butkus out of Chicago Vocational. He sold Butkus and his recruiting class on building a champion from the ground up, and it paid off.
"Our class was really his first full recruiting class, and we went to the Rose Bowl."
Butkus is considered the quintessential linebacker. That is why the college Linebacker Of The Year Award is named after him. The award goes to the college player who most typifies the ideals of linebacker play each year. Butkus realizes the role of the middle linebacker has changed significantly since he played.
"Yeah, definitely. They're using that three man line now with four linebackers, so you're impact player isn't going to be a player like that. They're going for speed and really athletic kids now.
"On our watch list, it's amazing. There are a few kids from California and the West, but the majority is East of the Mississippi and South of the Mason-Dixon line. Everything is speed now. Speed kills I guess."
Butkus had outstanding speed for a 6'-3", 235 pounder, and he had aggressiveness to go with it. He was naturally gifted, but he was always working hard and looking for ways to improve himself.
For instance, he studied as much film as anyone. By game time, he knew what his opponents were doing on every play, making it easier to disrupt the action. Of course, back then he was limited to using 16 mm movie film. There was no instant availability or stop-action, and playback required significant manipulation of the movie projector.
"Now with videotape, I want every play, every third-and-long, from this hash mark or side of the field. They'll cut them all up for you.
"I can't imagine. We used to look at everything and go over and over things. In fact, I still have my 16 mm projector. That was the only kind of film we had to study. I suppose it's an antique now.
"Usually, it was only shown when you were at practice. Nobody thought to come home with it. I did, but I was calling signals that first and second year with George Allen. I had to look over it. Plus, you can learn a lot about your opponent. Certain guys have certain traits, and they'll always revert to it. I could pick them out. It could be helpful to you."
There have been other significant changes since Butkus's era. For instance, his Illini team in 1964 was prevented from repeating its Rose Bowl appearance, and no other bowl games were permissible. It took away much incentive from repeating 1963 exploits.
"We couldn't go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row. We won when we were juniors, and everybody was happy the following year."
The 1963 Illini went 8-1-1, while the 1964 team settled for 6-3 in 1964. Another possible factor was a change from one-platoon to two-platoon football beginning with the 1964 season. Butkus's recruiting class featured numerous players equally adept on both sides of the ball. It gave them an advantage over other teams in 1963. Despite that, Butkus realizes the change was beneficial for the game of football.
"I think it really helped everybody. It gave people a chance, even if they weren't well-rounded players who could go both ways. If a guy was better on defense, he had a decent shot to play. I think it started with the quarterbacks because you didn't want him playing safety or whatever."
Former Illini Athletic Director Ron Guenther played with Butkus, graduating two years after him. They became friends, and that relationship has continued to this day. Butkus was asked to assess Guenther's tenure as Athletic Director.
"I think he did a good job. People there were getting on his case. But he really did a good job of upping the standards of all the facilities for the various sports, which seems to be the key thing now to lure the best coaches.
"You've got to have the great facilities, and he did that. He raised a lot of money and got some really nice, first-class facilities. You still need the players, but you're getting good coaches to come to your school."
Butkus still cares about his alma mater, and Illini Nation considers him a hero. What better way to memorialize this all-time great than to erect a statue in his honor? He has earned it.