As Michelle Sawyer first learned 30 years ago and can still attest today, first names are optional where Dave Butcher is concerned.
“He always called me ‘Shade.’ Sometimes, he still does,” Sawyer, an assistant coach in Butcher’s Pickerington High School North girls basketball program since 2011, said, referring to her maiden name from when she played for Butcher at Pickerington from 1988-91. “The kids call me ‘Shade’ sometimes. It took me awhile to call him ‘Dave.’”
That’s only one of the memories Sawyer will take from her association with one of the most successful coaches in state history.
Butcher, who won 747 games, six state championships and one national title in 35 seasons at Pickerington and North, announced his retirement at the team banquet March 19.
“We had a tough season with some injuries and I didn’t want to throw another something out there as a distraction. The kids didn’t need another thing to worry about,” said Butcher, who made his decision in January but asked North and school district administrators to keep it a secret until after the season. “I didn’t want media coverage. I didn’t want a farewell tour. I was really emotional (at the banquet).
“I am not sure if ‘bittersweet’ is the right word, but it was tough.”
Butcher finished with a 747-146 career record and won six state championships at Pickerington from 1985-99 and 23 consecutive district championships from 1989-2011. He began coaching at Pickerington, now known as Pickerington Central, in 1983 and moved to North when the school opened in 2003.
With his teaching career winding down and his first grandchildren on the way, Butcher, who turned 63 on Feb. 2, was reasonably certain by January that this would be his final season. He announced his retirement as a business and journalism teacher in December.
Butcher retires as the second-winningest girls basketball coach in state history. Beavercreek’s Ed Zink has a 770-243 career record in 43 seasons.
After the Tigers went 14-7 in Butcher’s first season, they won state championships in 1985, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 1999 and were state runners-up in 1994 and 2000. They were USA Today national champions in 1999.
North reached state in 2007 and 2011 but still is seeking its first title.
Pickerington won 74 consecutive games from 1991-94 and had a 181-game winning streak in league play from 1987-2001.
“(Butcher) was a great coach who made more of an impact on girls basketball in Ohio than anyone I have ever met,” said Dale Corbett, who recently stepped down after 31 years as Grove City's coach.
North athletics director Molly Feesler said she was not completely surprised when Butcher informed her of his decision in January, but kept his secret for more than two months.
“People would ask me if Dave was retiring and I’d say, ‘You’d better ask Dave.’ I didn’t think it was my place to say anything,” Feesler said. “Being a high school coach has changed over time. It’s a year-round commitment. It wears on you. There isn’t much time off. He’s going to be a grandfather now, and he deserves the time off to enjoy that and just enjoy his life.”
Former Panthers guard Emily Thomas credited Butcher not only with shaping her toughness, but helping her find a new collegiate home. Thomas, a 2015 North graduate, played two seasons at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington before transferring to Ohio Dominican before last season.
“Well, I was kind of scared,” Thomas said of the first time she met Butcher during a youth camp when she was in sixth grade. “He’s loud enough to clear a gym. With his success, I’d always wanted to play for him. He was a national championship coach. You talk to any coach, they know him. He made me play hard and then harder. If I didn’t, I knew I’d be on the bench.
“He helped me find a new school. He knows a lot of people and made some calls and I’m grateful for his help.”
Butcher will be inducted into the Ohio High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame on April 21, along with former North boys coach Pete Liptrap.
Amid the emotions of the team banquet, Sawyer said she and Butcher figured out that she and her daughter, Kyla, a senior who has committed to play for St. Louis College of Pharmacy, comprised the first combination of a former player who coached with Butcher and also had a daughter play for him.
“He has always been so organized and intense. His teams are the best-prepared I’ve ever seen,” Michelle Sawyer said. “Kids change, times change, but his intensity and preparation never changed.”
Even as he looked forward to more family time and chances to golf, Butcher did not completely rule out a return to coaching, either as an assistant or leading an already established program.
“It’s still in my blood. I’m the same age as Geno (Auriemma),” Butcher said with a laugh, referring to the coach who has led the University of Connecticut’s women’s team to 11 national championships since 1995. “I still feel energetic. I still feel young. But I have new responsibilities now, things I’ve missed.”