Hall of Fame coach Butler still roots for Knights

Tom Batters
Rod Butler

On Friday mornings in the fall of 1988, Richwoods football coach Rod Butler would sit in his office and contemplate the game his team was about to play that night.

“I would sit there and think, ‘How are we ever going to win a game?’ We just didn’t have the size and speed a lot of the other teams had,” said Butler, who guided the Knights to an undefeated state championship that season. “You have to credit our players. They proved me wrong every single week. They found ways to win. Mostly, they did it with heart and determination.”

Butler, who coached at Richwoods from 1984-94, still lives in North Peoria and follows the team closely. As the Knights coach, he compiled a 90-15 record, with eight of those losses coming in the state playoffs. He was inducted into the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

Butler shakes his head, and says, “Gosh, no,” when asked if he deserves most of the credit for that state championship team, or for his highly-successful run at Richwoods.

“It all started with the parents. I really believe that. The parents of those kids were so good to work with, and they raised their kids to be champions. By the time they came to play football at Richwoods, they already had what it takes to win,” he said. “As their coach, I had an easy job. All I had to do was to make sure they didn’t mess anything up on Friday nights.”

Butler sits on his shaded back porch, puffs on a cigar, and points to a couple cats who are creeping around for a handout.

“I fed one of them, and then a few more showed up,” he said, laughing. “So, now I feed the whole gang.”

He reflects back on his football career, which began on a high school football field in the small town of Lovington in the 1950s.

He played football, baseball, basketball and he ran track in high school before heading off to Eastern Illinois University.

“There were only 21 kids in my high school class. So, when I got to Eastern, I was a real green kid. Going to a big college was a step up for me,” he said. “But, I had great coaches there. That helped me make the adjustment.”

He was drafted by the Chicago Bears, and eventually signed with the Denver Broncos in July of 1963. He was cut just a few weeks later.

“If I had more speed, size or ability, I could have been a great NFL player,” he said, somewhat sarcastically. “But, that was the end of my pro career.”

He came to Peoria in 1964 and joined Bob Baietto’s staff as an assistant coach at Richwoods. Tom Peeler took over as head coach the next season.

In 1966, Butler became head coach at Princeton High School.

“I they had cell phones back then, I probably would have called Tom (Peeler) a few times during the games,” he said. “I was learning how to be a head coach, and Tom and Bob (Baietto) had taught me so much at Richwoods. It was strange to not have them there with me on the sidelines.”

He went 18-7-2 in three seasons at Princeton.

In 1969, he went to Illinois State University as an assistant coach, which is where he met Doug Simper, who retired as Richwoods football coach last year after a 14-year career.

“Doug was the finest all-around athlete I’ve ever been around,” Butler said. “He had exceptional natural ability and he worked so hard. He made his coaches look smarter because he was such a great player.”

After a short stint as defensive coordinator at Moorehead State University (during the time when former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms played there), Butler returned to Richwoods and was reunited with Peeler (head coach) and Baietto (principal).

Butler took the head coaching job at Richwoods when Peeler retired in 1984.

He took the Knights to the state championship game in 1987, but lost, 14-13, to Joliet Catholic.

Most of the starters graduated the following year, and Butler thought it would be a rebuilding process.

“I would have been happy with a winning record,” he said. “I never expected that team to win it all. But, they all believed in what we were doing. They worked hard and they made it fun, too. That was a special team. I had a great staff, too.”

Simper and current Richwoods head coach Dave Lang were assistant coaches.

The Knights blocked a field goal late in the game and beat Belividere, 36-29, to win the Class 5A title.

After retiring from Richwoods, Butler served as an assistant coach at Limestone and head coach at East Peoria, where he improved the football program significantly. The Raiders went 0-8, 2-7, 3-6, and 5-4 during his tenure there.

“At East Peoria, I had a core group of seniors who stuck it out for four years. It was rewarding to see them have a winning season,” he said.

He retired for good after 35 years of coaching.

He still keeps in touch with many of his former players, and he remains close friends with Simper.

“That reminds me. I have to water his plants while he is on vacation. I hope they’re still alive,” he said, laughing.

He still has a fondness for Richwoods athletics.

“Richwoods was so good to me when I was there,” he said. “I’ll always root for the Knights.”

He plays a lot of golf, but admits that it can be “aggravating.”

“It’s a good dose of humility,” he said, smiling. “I won’t be joining the PGA Tour anytime soon.”