Loyalty often vanishes in pro sports the first time a substantial contract is offered. Keith Butler proves it still exists in the NFL.
Butler, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers coach since 2003, was offered the job as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in January. Many NFL assistants would jump at such a promotion, not knowing if they would get another such opportunity. Butler turned it down for multiple reasons.
He didn’t like the thought of coaching the 3-4 defense without linebackers like those in Pittsburgh. He wanted to keep working for coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He felt the Steelers were better equipped to win a Super Bowl.
There also were concerns about being employed by a new ownership group in Miami that included several entertainers who own small shares, as opposed to the stability of working for the Rooney family in Pittsburgh.
So Butler chose to stay with Pittsburgh, for less money and with no guarantee he would someday succeed the 72-year-old LeBeau, one of pro football’s top defensive minds.
“Everybody wants to go to the top, everybody wants to be a head coach, everybody wants to be a defensive coordinator. And I’m no different,” Butler said Monday. “In my mind, Dick LeBeau should retire when Dick LeBeau wants to retire.
“I’m in no hurry to be selfish and jump in front of him. I want that guy to coach as long as he wants to coach because he deserves it.”
As for what happens when LeBeau retires, Butler doesn’t know — though he would appear to be the obvious choice to succeed him.
“You never take anything for granted in this business,” he said. “That’s not a decision that’s up to me. That’s up to Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau and I’m not going to push it.”
Butler, 54, has worked with LeBeau under both Bill Cowher and Tomlin in Pittsburgh, and he didn’t want to be coaching in Miami when LeBeau was inducted into the Hall of Fame. About a month after Butler turned down the Dolphins, LeBeau was elected.
“That meant a lot to me, to be there when he got into the Hall of Fame,” said Butler, who attended the Saturday night ceremonies in Canton, along with the Steelers players and staff.
While Butler once coached with Dolphins coach Tony Sparano in Cleveland, he especially values working for Tomlin.
The Steelers coach was a graduate assistant at Memphis when Butler was the linebackers coach and later was the secondary coach at Arkansas State when Butler was the defensive coordinator.
“I’ve worked with Mike Tomlin for a long time and Mike is the best guy I’ve ever worked for,” Butler said. “I know what he thinks and he knows what I think. He knows what my philosophy is in terms of trying to stop people. [Staying in Pittsburgh] meant more about who I’m working for and who I’m working with.”
LeBeau was away from the Steelers for three-plus days for the various Hall of Fame events, the first practices he can remember missing in 52 years as an NFL player and coach.
According to the Steelers players, Butler ran the defense during his absence, though Butler denied that.
Inside linebacker Larry Foote said there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, citing Butler’s booming voice that can be heard simultaneously on all four Steelers practice fields.
“He’s normally arguing and fighting with the offensive coaches, but when you’re the defensive coordinator, you let your assistants do that,” Foote said. “So [we told him to] keep working on it.”
A former Seattle Seahawks linebacker who ranks second in club history in career tackles, Butler has coached some of the NFL’s best linebackers while in Pittsburgh, including James Harrison, Joey Porter, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley.
This season, he’s helping to break in several new linebackers: Jason Worilds, a second-round pick who’s been hampered by a hamstring injury during training camp; Thaddeus Gibson, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State; and Stevenson Sylvester, a fifth-rounder from Utah who was the best of the rookies during the first week of camp.
Butler welcomes the challenge of blending new talent into a defense that ranked No. 5 last season yet was a disappointment as the Steelers missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record, a year after winning their second Super Bowl in four seasons.