Remembering Dick Butkus and the XFL

Dick Butkus and Vince McMahon, 2020.
Dick Butkus and Vince McMahon, 2000.

With the passing of Dick Butkus on October 5, 2023, lets take a moment to remember the time of his career when Vince McMahon brought him into the original XFL.

It all started on July 19, 2000, in Chicago, when Vince McMahon, Basil DeVito Jr. and Ken Valdiserri, the newly minted VP/GM of XFL Chicago, introduced Dick Butkus as the head coach of the soon to be named Chicago franchise.

Initially, it seemed like a great idea to hire someone with as many local connections as Butkus. Butkus was a Bears alumni, and a Chicago resident. Even more, Butkus was considered to not only have regional stature, he was a national treasure.

Born on December 9, 1942, into a large Lithuanian family on Chicago’s south side, Butkus started playing football when he was in grade school. Eventually he would attend the University of Illinois and played linebacker and center for the Fighting Illini. He was drafted by the Bears as the third overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft, and he quickly established himself as a ball hawk with a talent for causing turnovers. In his NFL career, he intercepted 22 passes and recovered 27 fumbles. Butkus was exactly the type of player McMahon adored. A rough, tough, old-school, smash mouth style player.

“Dick Butkus is the personification of the XFL,” said McMahon at the moment he announced the hiring of Butkus.

Butkus, playing up to McMahon, eagerly replied, “We’re gonna have people hitting people if I can help it.”

It was a match made in heaven.

Just one problem. Butkus had never been a coach, but he played one on television. At the time of the announcement, Butkus was cast as “Coach Mike Katowinski” in the Saturday morning teen sitcom Hang Time.

In 2000, at the time of the XFL’s inception, Butkus was probably better known as an actor, appearing in motion pictures and television series, usually in bit parts, and cameos. Among his television credits were over twenty episodic appearances in shows such as The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., Murder She Wrote, Saturday Night Live and Coach. As well, Butkus had performed in dozens of television commercials. He was much beloved and sought after by Hollywood.

Off the field, Butkus enjoyed a football broadcasting career that included roles as game analyst or commentator for University of Illinois football, and national networks.

Butkus seemed unconcerned about the fact he hadn’t had any coaching experience.

“How difficult is it?” Butkus said. “You just get the guys there and demand they work hard and let the chips fall where they may.”

For the league’s marketing people, Butkus was pure gold. The league’s official blogger, Lucas Swineford, published an article on titled “Butkus Proves It,” where he expounded how the hiring of Butkus proved the XFL is going to be serious football because they hired, “a Pro Football Hall of Famer and arguably one of the greatest defensive players to ever set foot on a field.”

The XFL marketing team also took it upon themselves to hire a Cessna to buzz Soldier Field during a Bears game with a banner declaring, “Butkus is Back.” Admittedly, this was a great stunt, as nobody loved Butkus more than Bears fans.

Unfortunately for Butkus, plans changed.

On October 18, 2000, Ron Meyer was hired as the head coach of the Chicago franchise. Meyer had experience coaching the Indianapolis Colts (1986-91) and New England Patriots (1982-84). In 1987, he led the Colts to their first division title in more than a decade and earned AFC Coach of the Year. Meyer was also named AFC Coach of the Year following the 1982 season, when he guided a Patriots team that had been 2-14 the previous year to a 5-4 record in a strike shortened season. Meyer had also served as head coach of the CFL’s Las Vegas Posse.

The hiring of Ron Meyer in Chicago bumped Dick Butkus out of the job. Mind you, Meyer had much more experience as a coach, and ironically, Meyer also had experience in television as he was currently an NFL analyst for CNN/Sports Illustrated.

The XFL spun Butkus’s departure as a promotion, saying he had been elevated to the position of XFL Director of Football Competition, which included a laundry list of duties such as monitoring and enforcing XFL rules; reviewing and monitoring team staffing to ensure fairness and consistency among and within teams; representing the league at games, training sessions, mini-camps and tryouts; and participating as a member of the XFL rules committee. Basil V. DeVito Jr. likened Butkus’ new role to be similar to that of Frank Robinson at Major League Baseball.

At the time, it was reported Butkus was sullen during the press conference. This didn’t seem like the response of someone who was just promoted. The XFL didn’t have to say it, but Butkus wasn’t working out as head coach. Instead of firing him outright, they gave him a new role. After all, they had bragged Butkus was involved with the XFL, they had better keep him around in some way.

“The XFL has been designed, and our rules have been written, to promote an exciting brand of football while at the same time creating an equal playing field and environment for all of our teams,” said DeVito. “Who better than Dick Butkus to focus on this aspect of our game?”

Said Butkus at the time, “I look forward to the challenges of my new job and I am committed to the XFL and delivering the kind of football I’ve always been associated with.”

Generally, the fans took the demotion harder than Butkus. Contributing to this was how the XFL hyped every one of their decisions with hard-core emphasis, resulting in the fans fully buying in to Butkus being the head coach of Chicago. Some even complained they had bought season tickets with the notion Butkus would be behind the bench.

The media also made a mockery of the league, first for appointing Butkus as a head coach, and then for reversing that decision. For the negative media it was a two-for-one deal, and they weren’t about to miss the opportunity to snipe at the league.

XFL fans would later see Dick Butkus, doing what he does best. Acting tough and starring in commercials for the league. He was seen doing promotions for the XFL leading up to kickoff, and in a famous television commercial where he smashed a red and black XFL football into the camera and touted the toughness of the league:

Dick Butkus: (yelling) You want to play real football? My kind of football. Raw survival in the mud and snow. No downs, no fair catches, no phony grass. It’s hard, it’s bruising, so it’s beautiful. Think your tough enough to play my kind of football? Then come and get it.

Narrator: Introducing the official game ball of the XFL from Spalding. The toughest game ball ever.

Butkus: (taunting) Come on Johnny! Ohhhh, Johnny’s mother is calling him.

When the XFL opening weekend began, Butkus was called upon to introduce one of the most dramatic rule changes of XFL 2001, and that was the notorious scramble for the ball.

Announcer Mike Adamle introduced “Hall of Famer” Dick Butkus, and referred to him as the “personification of the XFL.” To a roar from the fans, Butkus began to explain how the scramble would work.

“You know in the past all football games get started with a coin toss. No way Jose. Here we are in the XFL. We’re going to compete for the right to choose who possesses the ball at the start of the game. Two players one ball. Whoever possesses the ball gets his choice. Not only for the start of the game but for overtime should that be necessary. Good luck guys.”

Players were introduced, and the scramble was set to go. In what looked like a schoolyard sprint and wrestling match, Jamel Williams of the Las Vegas Outlaws came up with the ball over Donnie Caldwell of the New York/ New Jersey Hitmen.

The crowd roared with appreciation. “We haven’t even started yet ‘Body,’ and the place is already going nuts, “ Matt Vasgersian exclaimed to Jesse Ventura.

For XFL fans, Butkus was the real deal. he will always be remembered as a key part of the XFL in 2001. May he rest in peace.

With excerpts from XFL 2020: Rise and Fall. A book by Mark Nelson.

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