Bill Battle was cutting trees downed in a recent storm on his suburban Atlanta farm when alma mater Alabama called a couple of weeks ago.
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Now, the former Crimson Tide football player has ditched a comfortable semi-retirement of charity work and consulting to run a flourishing athletic department that had a $133 million budget in 2011-12 and has a football program enjoying a new heyday.
The reason sounds awfully similar to his old coach Bear Bryant’s explanation when he returned to ‘Bama from Texas A&M: "Momma called, and when momma calls you have to run."
"It dawned on me when some trustees and leaders of the university said, ‘We really want you to do this. This is a special time at the university,’" Battle said at his introductory news conference on Friday. "I thought to myself, if I didn’t do this, I would regret it for the rest of my life. Because it’s an opportunity to pay back the university, if I can, a great debt that I owed the university. If I don’t do it, it would be a big mistake.
"I’m here as a labor of love to try to help any way I can. I know I have time. I’m rested, I’m not tired. I look forward to this challenge."
If Battle didn’t necessarily run to the job, the silver-haired 71-year-old ultimately agreed to replace former Tide teammate Mal Moore, who is moving to a job as special assistant to President Judy Bonner because of health problems.
Trustees, including Paul Bryant Jr., lined seats next to the podium while football coach Nick Saban and wife Terry sat in the front row. Saban was the only coach to take a turn at the podium.
It wasn’t just symbolic, either.
Saban has led the Tide to three of the last four BCS titles and the program hasn’t given signs of retreating from regular national title contention any time soon.
Battle can appreciate that level of sustained success since he spent seven mostly successful seasons as Tennessee’s head coach in the 1970s and is the son of a coach and athletic director who grew up less than an hour away in Birmingham. He and Moore were part of Paul "Bear" Bryant’s 1961 national championship team.
"Coach Saban is important," Battle said. "What he’s done in football, not many people have done in college sports. He’s gotten ahead of the field. We want to be supportive as we can be to his needs and his team’s needs, give him the best chance to give his players the best chance to compete as we want to do with all of our coaches. That’s a critical relationship, but at the same time I want to learn from that guy. He’s good. He’s really good. There’s a lot of lessons that he teaches in his program that could be applicable to all of our lives and certainly to our athletic department."
Battle said he had only had brief conversations with Saban before sitting down with him in recent weeks.
Saban called him an "outstanding choice" and then invited him to attend practice, something he noted Moore and Bryant have often done.
"He’s been a very successful player here, he was a very successful coach, he’s been a very successful leader in the business world," Saban said. "Certainly a first-class individual who is well respected by just about everybody that you ever can meet that know him. I was able to spend a significant amount of time with Bill in this process and in my experience here at the University of Alabama over the last six years.
"Even though we lost a valuable statesman for the university in Mal Moore, he will continue to be with us a part of the university. But we’ve also added a gentleman that is going to be a first class person and a leader in our community as well as our university and our athletic department."
Battle founded Collegiate Licensing Company in 1981 and spent 21 years as president and CEO before selling the company in 2007.
He said the company employed some 150 people and generated more than $1 billion in revenue for universities over 26 years. Battle said he plans to spend his first six weeks on the job on "a listening tour" learning the task of overseeing the department, a job he acknowledged is out of his comfort zone.
Battle said one athletic director friend, who’s not in the Southeastern Conference, said there are more cons than pros to the job.
"It’s a difficult job. I didn’t take it to have fun," he said. "That isn’t why I’m here. It’s fun when you are in Miami and on the field celebrating the BCS championship. The fun is seeing people like (former Tide center) Barrett Jones and people like those merit scholars and the products of this university. But the job is never-ending and difficult."
Battle inherits the program at a time when college football is preparing to switch to a four-team playoff, though he cites regular season attendance levels as evidence basketball’s regular season needs a boost. He said he’s a supporter of the BCS but thinks the new method of choosing football national champions will work, too.
"There’s nothing in the United States sports that’s more important than the regular season of college football," Battle said. "That has gotten to be a whole lot less of a situation in basketball. The NCAA tournament is magnificent. It’s one of the great sports tournaments in the world, but the regular season needs help. "