Butler embraces new role
UNIVERSITY PARK – Of all the new enthusiasm along the Penn State sidelines last year, John Butler easily brought the most.
“We have an animated coaching staff, but he’s out there chest bumping,” safety Adrian Amos said of Butler during Penn State’s annual Media Day on Thursday. “It’s like he’s out here playing with us.”
Last season the Nittany Lions’ intense secondary coach often could be seen several yards out onto the field and not in this order: barking signals, encouraging his players and providing … let’s say feedback to the officials.
None of it seemed to bother Bill O’Brien, who used Ted Roof’s departure as defensive coordinator as an opportunity to promote Butler – within 24 hours.
“One of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” O’Brien said. “He’s an excellent coach with a very bright future.”
The transition, at least through the offseason, has gone seamlessly.
O’Brien and Butler enjoy the fire each injects – “we’re both competitive individuals,” O’Brien said – into the daily practice sessions, and Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the lone holdovers from the Paterno Era, have been supportive.
“It’s not a lot different from last year,” Johnson said. “John’s been around Ted, and the system is the same. Been a very smooth transition. John’s done a great job.”
If either were disappointed in not being selected to coordinate the defense, they didn’t show it Thursday. Both seem content with their place on the staff as highly-regarded position coaches with outstanding track records of recruiting and player development.
“I’ve accepted who I am,” Johnson said. “I’ve had opportunities to go different places, but I love Penn State, I love what I do, and I love my players. That’s more important to me than any title and or any job or any pay raise.”
Johnson enters his 18th season on the staff and has become a fixture in State College.
“My grandkids are here, [son] Tony is here, and our church is here,” he said. “I feel I’m part of the community.”
Like Johnson, Vanderlinden is 55-plus, and both understand that promotions usually go to coaches on their way up. Butler is 40.
“You bloom where you’re planted, and my job is as linebacker coach,” said Vanderlinden, who spent four years as Maryland’s head coach, going 15-29 from 1997-2000. “I really enjoy that role, and I really enjoy working with and under John. When Coach [O’Brien] named John, I was fully supportive.”
Butler called Johnson and Vanderlinden “great position coaches who have developed some of the best players to come through Penn State. They’ve done a great job prior to us getting here, and I think there’s good [staff] cohesiveness.”
Unlike many of Penn State’s past assistants who spent the majority of their careers with the Lions, this is Butler’s eighth stop.
But whether it was as a player and assistant at Catholic University or a graduate assistant under John Mackovic and Mack Brown at Texas or stints at Midwestern State, Texas State, Harvard, Minnesota and South Carolina, Butler always envisioned this kind of assignment.
“I don’t think it’s any different than any other field [of work],” he said. “You start out at the bottom, and you do the best job you can with the job you have. But then you look at the big picture as you work your way up the ladder so when the opportunity comes, you’re prepared for the job that comes with it.”
Growing up in Pennsylvania – he attended LaSalle College High School in Philadelphia with Craig Fitzgerald, the Lions’ strength coach, and former PSU lineman Keith Conlin – Butler is well aware of Penn State’s history for outstanding defense.
And despite PSU’s current lack of depth at linebacker, due in part to the NCAA sanctions, he plans to uphold it.
“We talked to them last night that [defense] has always been the brand here – smart, tough, physical, playmaking defense,” Butler said. “That’s always going to be the mission – no matter who is the head coach and who is the defensive coordinator. I’m very well aware of the players who have come through the program and the units that have come through here.”
Butler’s new responsibility of rapid-fire defensive calls may temper his sideline antics … to a point.
“I think as your role changes, and as you grow as a coach and a person, you’ve got to hold to who you are and what you’re about, but you always have to make sure who you are and what you’re about allow you to do the best possible job in your current role,” he said. “Sometimes my excitement will shine through, but I also understand my job requires composure and poise.”
He paused and smiled while adding, “But I am who I am, and I’m going to be myself.”