ICQ 2003/1

Farewell to a Legendary Coach


The great Bombers football coach Jim Butterfield passes away at 74

by Tom Fleischman

Jim Butterfield, the architect of three NCAA Division III championships and 206 victories in 27 years as head football coach at Ithaca College died in Ithaca on November 26, 2002, four days shy of his 75th birthday.

Butterfield in 1992 during the game against Montclair State during which South Hill Field was renamed Butterfield Stadium
Patricia Reynolds Photography

Butterfield, the coach with the most wins in Bombers football history and a 1997 inductee into the College Football Association Hall of Fame, died from complications related to Alzheimer's disease, with which he had lived for nine years.

In addition to his wife of 47 years, Lois, Butterfield is survived by a son, Terry, daughters Kristen and Gail, and six grandchildren. Butterfield also leaves behind scores of former players, coaching adversaries, and compatriots who were touched by the man affectionately known as "Butts."

"Having played for him and going into my profession, he gave me the ingredients I needed to be successful," says Mike Welch '73, a running back and team captain at Ithaca in the early 1970s who became an assistant under Butterfield in 1983 and then his successor in 1994.

"Where to start, what adjectives to use?" says Jerry Boyes '76, M.S. '81, who played for Butterfield in the mid-1970s, returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under Butterfield, then left in 1986 and built a fledgling Buffalo State College football program into an NCAA playoff team before stepping down two years ago. "Jim was my head coach, my mentor, he was a dear friend," Boyes says. "He was a tremendous influence on how I do everything, in my professional and personal life. The class of Jim Butterfield, the integrity of Jim Butterfield: I don't know of anybody else who comes close."

"To me, he epitomized what football coaches and real people are all about," says Tim Pendergast, M.S. '86, who was a graduate assistant at IC under Butterfield in 1980 and now coaches football at Cornell University. "People who learned from Jim dot the coaching ranks from the pro level to Pop Warner and every level in between. This is a gentleman who will be terribly missed."

Born in Tampa, Florida, on November 30, 1927, and raised in Massachusetts, Philip James Butterfield served in the navy and graduated in 1953 from the University of Maine with a bachelor's degree in physical education. An offensive guard on the university football team, he was inducted into the University of Maine Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989, along with his late brother, Jack.

Butterfield coached football for 41 seasons, first at the Arms Academy in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, where he compiled a two-year record of 11-4. He returned to the University of Maine, where he was line coach from 1956 to 1960, then spent seven years as an assistant coach at Colgate University.

Butterfield began his Ithaca College coaching career on March 24, 1967, when he took over for Dick Lyon. His first Ithaca team finished 4-4. The 1968 and '69 squads were Butterfield's only two losing teams (both finished 3-5); IC bounced back to finish 4-4 in 1970.

After that, his teams were all winners -- 23 consecutive seasons, one of the longest streaks in the NCAA in any division. Butterfield's teams appeared in 29 NCAA Division III playoff games, posting a 21-8 record. Both were Division III records at the time of his retirement.

Butterfield is all smiles after Ithaca College's 1988 Stagg Bowl win.
Photo by Andres Alonso

Ithaca won its first of three national titles in 1979, defeating Wittenberg College 14-10 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. Other titles came in 1988 and in 1991. Ithaca has appeared in seven Stagg Bowls total, all under Butterfield.

Butterfield's reputation extended far. He was named Kodak Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association in 1988 and '91 and earned AFCA District I Coach of the Year honors seven times. The New York Football Writers Association named him Eastern Coach of the Year in 1979, '88, and '91.

Coach Jim Butterfield and more than 40 members of the 1991 national championship football team celebrate their 10-year anniversary in October 2001 (larger image).
Photo courtesy of Lisa Fox Finneran '93

In 1992 Butterfield became the third coach in college football history to have his school's stadium named after him while still active. South Hill Field became Butterfield Stadium on September 19; only Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University and Roy Kidd at Eastern Kentucky University had been so honored before.

He finished with a career record of 206-71-1. While he amassed impressive numbers and honors, it was never about statistics and trophies, according to those who knew him best. "Discipline, integrity, hard work, fairness, class, that's what I took from him . . . as my foundation in coaching," Welch says.

"He coached and played by the rules," says Boyes. "He taught hundreds of young men, and if they took away anything, they took away that. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't do something that has its roots in the lessons I learned under Jim."

The Butterfield family has established the Jim Butterfield Scholarship Fund. For information contact Elayne Nicholas.  

This article originally appeared in the Ithaca Journal on November 28, 2002. Reprinted with permission.

Randy Garrett '73 wrote a poem in honor of Coach Butterfield, which you can read online: Tribute to Coach Butterfield

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 13 June, 2003