When John Butler was finishing up his senior season at Catholic University in 1994, his head coach asked him what he planned to do with the rest of his life. Butler's answer: "I don't know."
The coach suggested that Butler stay with the team as a graduate assistant, and that ignited a career that has taken Butler to several high-profile stops. Now if you asked Butler what he planned to do with his life, he'd say that he wants to coach at Penn State for as long as possible.
The 39-year-old left his job as an assistant at South Carolina to join Bill O'Brien's first Nittany Lions staff in January. A Philadelphia native, Butler always had one eye on State College.
"I've always been a fan of Penn State, and I've always been familiar with what goes on here," he said. "To me, Penn State is and always will be Penn State. If I looked at my career 18 years ago, and you told me I'd have a chance to coach [any school], I'd be lying if I didn't say Penn State was at the top of the list."
Butler has never worked with O'Brien but had talked to him on several occasions before taking the job. New Penn State strength coach Craig Fitzgerald went to high school with Butler and worked alongside him at Harvard and South Carolina. Fitzgerald was on the same Maryland staff as O'Brien in the early 2000s.
"Craig always spoke very highly of Bill O'Brien in every regard," Butler said. "He'd tell me, 'This is a guy we all will want to work for some day.'"
Butler also spent four years as the linebackers and special teams coach at Minnesota, where he worked for new Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Ted Roof. That gives him a comfort level with his defensive boss at Penn State and also an understanding of what it takes to win in the Big Ten.
"There have been a lot of coaching changes, but the core of the league stays the same," he said. "It's still the run-first, defensive mentality, the toughness and playing in all types of weather. Those are the things that are familiar for me."
Butler will oversee the defensive backs at Penn State, and that may be the most challenging position to coach on the 2012 team. All four of last year's starters in the secondary — D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay, Drew Astorino and Chaz Powell — were seniors. That means Butler will not only have to teach a new system but also break in players taking on bigger roles.
Butler said he's not going to "dummy down or baby down" his coaching methods for the young group, but he also plans to be smart in not asking them to do too much right away this spring. He said he wants to be aggressive in the passing game but not an all-out gambler.
"I think you have to be aggressive but a smart aggressive," he said. "I grew up in Philly, where everybody thinks of aggressive as Buddy Ryan — man-to-man coverage, blitzing every snap. We're not going to do that, but we are going to have a package where we challenge receivers and challenge quarterbacks to make a play under duress. We're not going to be a team that sits back and lets the offense do what it wants to do on their terms."
Butler will also serve as special teams coordinator, though Penn State will continue to split up special teams duties like it had done under Joe Paterno for many years. Butler says five coaches on staff will "be extremely involved" in special teams and each will handle a specific unit. He'll oversee the overall execution and help with each group.
Nittany Lions special teams were sometimes seen as conservative and mostly concerned with avoiding mistakes under Paterno. Butler seems to have a different view of them.
"It's critical to make plays for your team in the kicking game," he said. "It's not just a setup for what's going to happen next. We're going to emphasize explosive plays, and you've got to play your best players on special teams. You have to look at it as the first play of your defensive series or the first play of your offensive series."
Butler says he looks at Penn State as a destination job and possibly his last stop in coaching. He and the Nittany Lions hope this is the start of a long, fruitful relationship.