Luke Butkus starred at center for Illinois, leading his 2001 football team to a Big 10 Championship and trip to the Sugar Bowl. He did a graduate assistantship at Oregon before working in the NFL for Chicago and Seattle. When new Illini coach Tim Beckman asked him to join the staff, he was overjoyed.
"I'm still on that high. Looking around campus, seeing the whole campus, it brings back a ton of memories. I'm very fortunate to be here; I was very fortunate to play here. Now I think we need to get the kids that feel the same way about this University as I do."
Of course, there is a difference between playing on Zuppke Field and coaching from the sidelines. Butkus expects an easy transition.
"I feel like I can still play the game, but it's not me out there. It's their team, not my team. Ultimately, they have to line up between those hashes and play the game.
"It's a little bittersweet because I've had a lot of great times down there on that field. At the same time, I know we're going to have great times on the sideline coaching these guys."
Butkus has been on the go since the moment his NFL season was over.
"We finished up the season in Arizona with Seattle on January 1st. And then you get on a plane January 2nd for Champaign. You leave a not even four-week-old son at the time and your family. That's the toughest part about this business, the toll it takes on your family life. "I'm trying to get a wife and two kids out here. I would rather have my family out here as fast as I can."
During the reunion of the 2001 Big 10 championship team last July, Butkus was asked when his uncle Dick Butkus would see a statue raised on his honor next to Memorial Stadium. His answer was short and sweet.
"It will happen when I'm named a coach at Illinois."
Was that intuition on his part?
"Not really, but this place has been great to me. I've always had a special place in my heart for the University of Illinois. I grew up driving down 57 watching my cousin Mark (Butkus) play. I had a lot of family come here, so this is a place I've known for a long time. It really means something to me, it special to me.
"Was it always in the back of my mind I wanted to be back here? Yes. I've always thought about it, ever since I started coaching. This is the place I loved for the five years I went here.
"I know it's a great place to raise a family. And I still have some great friends here. So of course this place would be on the top of my list as a place to coach."
He cannot make the statue happen, but perhaps he sensed that might happen in the near future. Without doubt, he believes there should be one for his famous relative, and other Illini stars as well.
"That's not up to me. Do I want a statue, do I think there should be a statue? Of course. People don't understand the tradition of this place. Arguably the greatest player who ever lived, and the reason why the NFL is what it is today, is Red Grange.
"He's my uncle, I understand that. I never saw him play in person, but all the evidence and facts suggest he's the greatest linebacker to ever play the game.
"I think we should have four or five of those statues, not just Red Grange and my uncle. Ray Nitschke is a perfect example. J.C. Caroline, we've had some great players here.
"Me being a history guy that loves and respects the history of the people that played this game before us, it should be a place where people know something important happened in history."
Butkus has a special passion for Illinois and a vast knowledge of offensive line play. He is confident he can both recruit top players to his alma mater and coach them to great heights once here. He talks about recruiting in part 2 and Illini offensive line play in part 3.