Hall of Famer Butkus leaves Illini team buzzing

 

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LOS ANGELES – In his prime, no one wanted anything to do with Dick Butkus on the football field. The former Illini and football legend was as fierce a competitor as there was.

Apparently that aura has carried over to today where, as Butkus tells it, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther wants nothing to do with him on the golf course.

"It hasn't happened, because I think he's scared," Butkus said when asked if he and Guenther had played a round this week. "He probably hasn't been playing coming from that weather, and I live out here so I've got a little advantage."

Butkus took in the Illini's practice Friday at the Home Depot Center as dozens of fans, players and media members looked on in awe.

Even at 65, he's an intimidating figure. Few dared to approach the Hall of Famer as he visited with Guenther.

"What the (heck) took you so long," he said after being summoned for an interview by a pair of reporters. "I was wondering if anybody was ever going to talk to me."

Butkus was at practice for a close look at his alma mater as it prepares for a New Year's Day battle with No. 13 Southern California.

Living in southern California, Butkus does his best to keep tabs on the progress of the Illini. But he knows a thing or two about the Trojans as well.

"They're gonna have their hands full with SC, because unfortunately for (Illinois), I think SC has all their people back," Butkus said. "They've got a shopping list of running backs and everything else."

Butkus grew up on Chicago's South Side and attended Chicago Vocational, the same high school as Illini quarterback Juice Williams. Butkus is proud of the fact his alma mater produced another great player and said Williams will be key if the Illini are to come out on top Tuesday.

"I think if Juice has a good game and just eliminates mistakes and turnovers, they have a shot," Butkus said. "That's what the kid did from Oregon (Dennis Dixon). They kind of broke it open there for a while."

Not since Butkus' nephew, Luke, was a senior in 2001 has Illinois made the postseason. With Ron Zook at the controls, Dick Butkus said, Illinois has staying power.

"It was always a question of recruiting; you've got to get the players," he said. "It was always a question that I tried to figure out: 'Why don't we get good quality players?' But it seems like we have that now, and talking with Ron Guenther, this is like a year earlier than what was expected."

Butkus spoke to the team following practice, and the players were buzzing about it afterward. Linebacker J Leman, who was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation's top linebacker, spoke like a star-struck child about Butkus.

"We had the greatest football player ever at our practice today talking to us," Leman said.

"You've been in my office. You've seen his jersey hanging on my wall," Zook said. "Between him and Red Grange, arguably two of the best players who have ever played the game.

"I don't remember Red Grange, but I do remember watching Dick Butkus play. It's an honor. He did a nice job. He just kind of said it how it is."

Butkus and Leman spent a few minutes talking after practice, and Leman is a player Butkus said he has been following for a few years now.

"I was kind of disappointed that he didn't make the final three of the Butkus Award," Butkus said of the award that went to Ohio State's James Laurinaitis. "But it just so happened this year there were a lot of good ones. I think he can probably go to the next level."

Talking to and encouraging players wasn't all Butkus did Friday.

Former Illini and College Football Hall of Famer David Williams was also scheduled to address the team, but Williams said he generally doesn't do well speaking in front of large groups. He sought out Butkus for advice, recalling the 1984 Rose Bowl when Butkus delivered a pregame speech to Williams and his Illinois teammates.

"I can talk to anybody one-on-one, but I can't do large groups like this," Williams said. "I told Dick to just go out there and do it for me, but he actually gave me a little pep talk before I went out there to talk to him, so that was kind of funny.

"Once I had that, I felt OK about it. He gave me that little Illini push that I needed."

Maybe a push is what Guenther needs to join Butkus on the golf course.