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Jack Butler, Hall of Fame defensive back and scouting pioneer, dies at 85

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Jack Butler at his 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. (Getty Images)

If you've ever watched college football tape with an analytical eye, written a scouting report, opined on the future prospects of a collegiate star, or spent any time in the throes in the ever-burgeoning draft analysis industry, you owe Jack Butler a debt of thanks. The former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back and longtime BLESTO director died on Saturday after a lengthy battle with a staph infection.

Butler was inducted into the Hall in the 2012 class, based on a career with the Steelers that lasted from 1951 through 1959. He intercepted 52 passes in his career, and returned them for 827 yards and four touchdowns. All these years later, Butler's career total still ranks 26th all time.

But it's what Butler did after a severe leg injury ended his career that really made his name as an NFL all-timer. He was the formative person behind the establishment of BLESTO (Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers Talent Organization), which was the first collective scouting service in the NFL, in 1963. Over time, BLESTO expanded to include many more teams, and when the pooling of scouting reports became more commonplace and a scouting combine was established to further analyze college players, Butler ran that as well. From 1963 through 2007, when he retired, Butler was the only Pittsburgh representative besides Josephine Harding, his secretary of 32 years.

Butler would oversee Pittsburgh's scouting, hire scouts, train them in his method, and send them out to do their jobs and develop their acumen in their own ways. He was a key figure behind the incredible series of drafts that started in head coach Chuck Noll's first season of 1969 (with the selection of small-school defensive tackle Joe Greene) and ended in 1974 with what most people consider to be the finest single-team selction process in NFL history -- four Hall-of-Famers (Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster) in one draft.

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The Super-Scout: Butler at his office in 1980. (Getty Images)

"One of my favorite all-time people I've met in football is Jack Butler," former Steelers and Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donohoe told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2007. "He broke me in; he probably broke half the league in scouting through BLESTO."

And as Bouchette noted, scouting was far more primitive in the days before advanced technology.

Each scout would write reports into a book he carried with him and also on old copy paper. They sent their reports to Butler, he made copies and sent them to the member teams. During their fall meeting, Butler would listen to his scouts, and then put a grade on each player. Now the scouts e-mail Butler, and he e-mails teams.

Butler rated thousands of players and helped tens of talent evaluators get their careers going, but as current Steelers GM Kevin Colbert noted, Butler's greatest strength was in his ability to allow his people to develop their own scouting eyes, and organize those divergent viewpoints into a cohesive whole.

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Butler in 1956, looking eager to knock some receiver into the dirt. (Getty Images)

"He'd give you a map, a stopwatch and your schools, show you how to fill out a report form, and say go to it. He didn't have a manual on scouting. He always felt everybody's going to be themselves, they're going to develop their own style. As long as he gets the information the way he wanted, he didn't care. He wasn't going to make you a robot."

And as Steelers president Art Rooney II recalled in 2007, Butler was able to reconcile his position with the Steelers with the need presented by every team for a comprehensive scouting system.

"All the teams got the right information. He was a Pittsburgh kid and a former Steeler, but everyone got a fair shot. There were no hidden agendas, and he was not ambitious for himself to use this job as a springboard to become a GM in the league."

What he became was a legend -- a true figure of respect among all in the scouting community.

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