He was a very quiet, unassuming, almost shy type of guy. But once you got to know him, you realized that he had so much pride in his work. He had this small little sliver in the world that he was in charge of, and he took pride in doing the best of his ability. ... All of the help he gave guys, he tried as much as he could to keep it secret. Not for the wrong reasons, but for the right reasons. —Former BYU linebacker Derik Stevenson, on Duane Busby
PROVO — When Derik Stevenson was arrested and landed in jail after making some bad decisions, and facing serious charges, back in January 1997, he made his one phone call to a man he knew he could trust — Duane Busby.
The distraught BYU linebacker contacted Busby, who was serving at the time as a personal assistant to legendary coach LaVell Edwards, and Busby rushed to Stevenson’s aid.
“I remember going to Duane’s house that day. I was a complete wreck. I thought my life was over,” Stevenson told the Deseret News Thursday. “It was the middle of the night and I crashed on his couch, and he talked with me until the wee hours of the morning.”
Seventeen years later, Stevenson credits Busby for helping him work through that legal situation, rejoin the football team, and turn his life around. Instead of going to prison, Stevenson starred for the Cougars, played briefly for the Miami Dolphins, and, today, is a husband and father, and a commercial insurance broker.
“Duane helped me make amends for what I had done wrong and to get back into good graces and admitted back to school and get my life back on track,” Stevenson said. “He was the one guy, more so than my coaches, that was by my side every day, helping me work with my (LDS) bishop and complete my community service and the demands the judge put upon me so I could be in good standing and get back into BYU. He was, even more than LaVell Edwards, the man in the program that helped me turn my life around and improve who I was as a person. LaVell wanted to be a second father to all of us guys, but with such limited time, LaVell expected Duane to be an extension of himself and provide mentoring to the young men whose care LaVell was entrusted with.”
Busby is at the center of a monthslong internal review that has been conducted by BYU officials in response to allegations that players received impermissible benefits, which violates NCAA rules.
According to sources, former and current players have received free housing, gifts and other benefits.
Busby was part of the football program for nearly two decades. He was named the director of football operations in 2001, a position he held until the announcement of his sudden retirement on March 24 "to pursue other interests."
Following that announcement, when asked about Busby, coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "You don’t replace him. Personal friend. Trusted advisor. Essential to our success over the past nine years, and to me personally, and (wife) Holly. He’s not replaceable. Duane is understated, and he asked me specifically not to make a big deal about it. So that’s as big a deal as I can make it. I will miss him."
As Stevenson and other former players attest, the soft-spoken Busby had a big influence on the program, though he was largely an anonymous figure outside the program.
Even hard-core BYU fans could walk past Busby on the street and not recognize him or be aware of the enormous responsibility he carried with the team. Many fans probably hadn't even heard of him until a couple of days ago.
“And he wanted it that way,” Stevenson said. “He was a very quiet, unassuming, almost shy type of guy. But once you got to know him, you realized that he had so much pride in his work. He had this small little sliver in the world that he was in charge of, and he took pride in doing the best of his ability. ... All of the help he gave guys, he tried as much as he could to keep it secret. Not for the wrong reasons, but for the right reasons.”
“He was the quiet hero of BYU football," said James Lark, who played quarterback at BYU from 2010-12. "He was never in the papers. He was never in front of the media. But he made the whole thing run. He made it very successful. The players love him. Those that didn't love him probably didn't know him very well."
Oddly, immediately after Busby left BYU, former players and members of the media that tried to contact him discovered that his phone was disconnected. They found that his Twitter and Facebook accounts had disappeared. His abrupt departure was stunning to current players and former players alike.
“It really surprised me. I thought Duane would be a lifer there forever,” said Stevenson. “He was BYU football to me. I reached out to him to see who had given him a big-money offer and I couldn’t get ahold of him. His cellphone was disconnected. He was off Twitter and Facebook. Nobody knew how to get ahold of him.”
Lark, meanwhile, said he wasn't necessarily surprised when he heard the news that Busby was leaving BYU.
“He always told me he wanted to give as much as he could to BYU, then he wanted to move on to different opportunities or retire in the next few years," he said. "I figured he had given his all to BYU and wanted to try something new. Then I started to find out why he left, and I felt bad. He left such a positive impact on the program and a lot of people are only going to remember him for this, in a negative sense.”
Stevenson acknowledged that his point of reference is from the period he played at BYU, in 1995-1998, and that he isn't familiar with the program as it has been run by Mendenhall and doesn't know anything that has happened in recent years.
Stevenson referred to Busby as “the fixer,” but he meant it in a positive connotation.
“Duane took a lot of pride in being the behind-the-scenes guy that made everything run smoothly,” he said. “He wasn’t handing people cash. But he was probably bending a lot of the rules or walking along the edge of the cliff when he probably shouldn’t have been.”
Lark acknowledged that Busby may have run afoul of some NCAA rules, but, he said, that wasn't Busby's intention.
“Duane was doing it for the right reasons because he was trying to help out friends. He wasn’t saying, ‘Any football player can live with me.’ Duane became very close friends with a lot of the players. Duane had a handful of guys he connected with, and I was one of them. I never lived with him, but he wanted to help. I don’t blame Duane at all for any bad intent. It’s unfortunate it’s turned out like this. One day, when he stands at the judgment bar, the fact that he was being giving and loving to players won’t fault him very much. It is against NCAA rules and it did hurt him here.”
Lark said Busby impacted the lives of many players.
“He was one of the reasons I came to BYU because I became friends with him while I was being recruited. I’ve called Duane at inconvenient times and he would always get back to me and try to help me out with questions. Even those players he wasn’t close with, he’d do absolutely anything for. I’m assuming it ended up costing him his job. He’s such a good guy. The BYU football program, where it is now, wouldn’t be as far along as it is and as successful as it is, without Duane. The main goal of the program is to change the lives of young men and prepare them for the real world. Duane played as big a part, if not more than the coaches, in doing that for some of the players."
A single man who never married, Busby spent much of his time involved in the lives of the players.
“He was wired a little bit differently than most, especially in the Mormon culture,” Stevenson said. “He really got his self-worth and his value by two things — BYU football and helping guys. He loved being that mentor and big brother. He took (former quarterback) Kevin Feterik, a non-LDS kid that had his fair share of struggles with the culture and the team, and he made it his personal mission to help Kevin on and off the field. Duane helped Kevin and others with the honor code and made improvements in their lives. I really respected how Duane reached out to the non-LDS kids and (helped them) adjust to the lifestyle and live the honor code more fully.”
Prior to arriving at BYU in 1996, Busby was the equipment manager and video coordinator for the Ricks College football team for five years. He also taught at Madison High in Rexburg, Idaho, where he was an assistant coach for the football and basketball teams.
Busby, who graduated from Arizona State with a degree in English in 1984, also served as an assistant to then Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and was the managing editor of The Wickenburg Sun.
Not long after joining the BYU staff in 1996, Busby created a highlight video for a Friday night team get-together on the eve of the season-opening Pigskin Classic against nationally ranked Texas A&M. Busby showed clips of past games and arranged for Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, who was playing in the NFL at the time, to share some inspiring words to the Cougars. After BYU upset Texas A&M, some players gave some credit to Busby for firing them up. The Cougars ended that season with a 14-1 record, a Cotton Bowl victory and a No. 5 national ranking.
Years later, after Edwards retired, Busby took care of the Edwards’ home in Provo while they were serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City. Stevenson remembers Busby helping players with talks they would give in church meetings. Many of the former players that would return to BYU to visit would spend time with Busby and talk to him while they watched practice. Busby built a reputation for being cordial and professional with everyone he encountered, including reporters and players.
Now, after everything that’s come out publicly about Busby the last couple of days, Stevenson is concerned for his friend.
“When you have the only things that you value most in life taken away — probably because he was too generous and he operated in the gray areas that are the NCAA rules and guidelines. I worry about him," Stevenson said. "I don’t know of anyone that’s been able to get ahold of him.
“I worry that the media has taken a lot of this and run with it. Duane’s going to be the fall guy,” Stevenson continued. “Everybody from the top to the bottom knows the man that Duane is and knows that if he were guilty of something, he was guilty of having a big heart and trying to help kids. I hope he doesn’t become the fall guy for the program to save face with the NCAA. Everybody knew that Duane was intimately involved with a good number of players. He was busy from 5 a.m. to midnight with as many guys as he could take under his wing. He would have reached out to anyone. I saw him help the superstars and I saw him help walk-ons that never saw the field. When he helped me my sophomore year, I was not a superstar.”
Stevenson does not believe Busby was forced out of his job as many have speculated.
“I think we’ll find out the opposite,” he said. “He looked into the future and saw he was going to bring some shame to the program. I think it was more than Duane could stomach. I think he probably told (athletic director) Tom Holmoe and Bronco that he was going, and there was nothing they could do to stop him. In his own way, he had this mentality that if he was going to bring some bad to the program, he would have fallen on his own sword and walked away as quietly as possible.”