Admittedly my memory is not quite what it ought to be because, my goodness, we are talking almost 40 years but I’m still clear on the last time Bill Battle sat in the Athletic Director’s office at the University of Alabama. Of course, it was on the other side of the desk but the story line is that late this morning the university’s trustees will name the old Tennessee coach, now age 71, as the new Athletic Director for the Crimson Tide.
It is a phenomenal hire – Bill’s a proven genius and he’ll replace his dear friend Mal Moore, who earlier this week resigned with some pretty serious heart problems. Battle grew up in Birmingham and, in the early ‘60s, was a three-year starter for Bear Bryant at tight end and defensive end. He then got in coaching and, after a couple of stops, was an assistant at Tennessee for four years before becoming the youngest head coach in the country for the Vols in 1970.
Battle was a whale of a coach - honest, fine, a good man compiling a 59-22-2 record during the next six seasons and we grew to be wonderful friends. In candor, I had also become friends with his biggest nemesis. After Bill beat Coach Bryant’s Tide in his first season, Bryant’s Alabama dominated Tennessee for the remaining five years. Forget many slim margins, either.
Some Tennessee backers, furious at Bryant’s success but seemingly oblivious that the Bear’s Boys were whipping every other team, too, found a way to lure the university’s most famous hero – Johnny Majors – back home after he had won a national championship at Pittsburg and, to be gentle, that’s what happened but it took UT a while to live it down.
Battle was a mainstay as a player for Alabama from 1960 through ’62, but back then “The Family,” those who had played and coached for Bryant, was tighter than the Sicilian Mafia. For instance, I remember when Ron Durby was an assistant coach at UTC and suddenly he’s on Battle’s staff, going to law school and coaching at the same time before he flourished as a judge in Chattanooga. That’s what happened.
Anyhow, I was skirting around the shadows when Bill got fired at Tennessee and it wasn’t two days before he was in the Athletic Director’s office in Tuscaloosa. That was where Coach Bryant welded his very significant power and, in the way fate can be fickle, after they huddled the crushed Bill Battle would never coach again.
I think Coach Bryant knew how hurt Battle was and that Bill, rattled by what transpired in Knoxville, didn’t have the stomach for coaching about then so The Old Man said, “Hey, I know a guy down in Selma who’s looking for somebody just like you to run his company. You’ve got the organizational skills and this’d be good.” (Coach was good about making two words into one.)
Bill later recalled, “What does this company do?” and Bryant scowled at him, saying “’Luminum windows.” Battle burst out laughing, “Coach, I don’t know anything about windows … much less aluminum!’’ and Bryant scowled deeper, puffed his Chesterfield and said “You can learn!” as he reached for the phone.
Within the first two weeks Bill Battle traveled to the country of Jordan in the Middle East. Wouldn’t you know that right then they were building the King Hussein Hospital and they needed windows. The order was for over $2 million in aluminum windows from the Circle S Industries in Selma, Ala. The jubilant Battle hadn’t even gotten on the plane to fly back to the U.S. when he called Coach Bryant to tell him, because two million back in 1977 was unheard of. “Bryant growled, “I knew you could learn to sell windows” and then hung up on him.
A couple of years later I saw Coach Battle at the halftime of an Auburn-Georgia Tech game and I could tell he was happy and flush. As we chatted two Georgia Tech fans, men in their 50s with Yellow Jacket blazers, stiff white shirts and their official GT neckties walked by. Each had a huge foam-rubber Yellow Jacket hat on their heads, the long spidery legs dangling down just so, and Bill about exploded with laughter, pulling me close to stage-whisper, “Do you realize I used to lose sleep at night worrying about guys exactly like that!”
Well, Bill stayed with Circle S Industries for six years, taking it from two companies that made $12 million a year to 10 that were hauling in $60 million. And, then, in the fickle way these things sort of happen, Coach Bryant called Bill and said, “Got something on my mind. Come see me.”
By now times were good for the Battles. Eugenia and the boys were happy. But Bill didn’t dare pause a step getting to Tuscaloosa and Bear Bryant hatched the slickest plan ever. You see, by 1981 Battle knew about running a business and the ensuing start-up would make more gold than Fort Knox. Coach Bryant told Bill that people were going crazy over sports. They couldn’t get enough.
So here was the plan: Bill Battle would start Golden Eagle Enterprises, a unique company that would give vendors the right, or “license,” to sell anything that said “Alabama Football” or “Go Vols” or “War Eagle.” Any piece of clothing, souvenir photograph, car decal, those flags that flap from windows – it all must be licensed.
Bill started laughing, telling the coach there was no way to corral up sports licensing, and Bryant scowled, “Wanna’ bet?” Battle was actually amazed at the idea. “How will we sell it?” he asked The Old Man. You’ll love this -- that very day Bear Bryant, who had won national championships, signed the first sports marketing license to the owner and founder of Golden Eagle. Battle would give most of) the proceeds back to each university, which in turn would use the funds in athletics.
Well, duh, the thing took off like a Titan rocket. Quickly Battle had to move to Atlanta and call it The Collegiate Licensing Company. Today it serves over 200 colleges and universities, the bowl games, the NCAA, the Heisman and who knows what else. Bill sold the company to global sports giant IMG in 2007, which pulled in the PGA Tour, the LPGA, The Kentucky Derby and all sorts of other venues.
Numbers? In 1981 there was $250 million spent in sports marketing; by the year 2010 that number had grown to $4.3 billion. By then Bill had turned over the day-to-day dealing to his son Pat, but while the once-fired Tennessee football coach ran the business over $1 billion was doled out to client-universities across the nation.
Now, be honest, if you were looking for an athletic director to look over the University of Alabama right now, doesn’t it seem like an old Tennessee football coach might just be the very one? Trust me, I remember enough about all that’s happened to declare it’s just perfect.