TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Bill Battle's connection with the University of Alabama spans nearly six decades. Battle was a three-year starter (1960-62) at Alabama, and was a member of Paul "Bear" Bryant's first national championship team in 1961. He's made coaching stops at Oklahoma (assistant), the United States Military Academy (assistant) and the University of Tennessee (head coach).
Battle is also a successful business man having founded the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) in 1981, and served as its president and CEO until 2002.
Hired as Alabama's athletic director in March 2013, Battle is in the second year of his four-contract.
On Monday, Battle sat down with the Anniston Star's Marq Burnett to discuss a wide range of topics including the strength of the athletic department, his thoughts on the hiring of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, whether he seriously considered not bringing men's basketball coach Anthony Grant back and more.
How was your first year on the job, and do you feel like you accomplished everything you had on your agenda coming in?
It's definitely been an adventure. My goal was to spend six months and try to learn what the business of the athletic department was, who all the players were and how to get in and out from my house to my office and other places in the athletic department I needed to go. I'm still figuring some of that out, but I have most of it figured out. I wanted to carry on the business of the athletic department because it's been running very smoothly over the past few years. So I was not surprised to learn that our staff is really good. We have good coaches, we have a good staff and everybody knows what they're doing so from that perspective, it's been very positive and very pleasant.
A lot of (Alabama's) sports are successful and the football program is the third most valuable program in the nation. What does that mean to you and how does the athletic department improve from here?
It makes me feel very proud as an alumnus of the university. I followed the recent successes of the university really closely. I also followed the university for the last 50 years since I left the university. I've been amazed at the growth. In the last 10 or 12 years, we've gone from 19,000 (students) to almost 36,000. The academics have gone up every year. The beauty of the campus has gone up every year with $1.7 billion in construction. Athletics has seemed to go up every year. It is a privilege to be here at this time. It's a privilege to be in this place. Someone said 'well if you can maintain,' but I don't believe you can maintain. I think you either get better or you get worse. So my goal has been to keep the pedal to the metal and try to get better at everything we're doing. Our staff believes in that and they've worked in that way so it's been positive. We're in event management. We participate in nearly 400 events every year and we put on half of those. Some of them are at Bryant-Denny Stadium where 130-140,000 people come to town to sit in 101,000 seats. Our staff is really good at doing that. It's a round the clock job. We have 550 student-athletes. There are good and bad things that happen every day around that many young people, but most of them are good. That's what we take pride in and we work hard to minimize and once they happen, correct the ones that aren't so good.
News of Alabama's new multimedia rights deal with Learfield Sports came out recently. What went into that deal and what does it mean for the athletic department going forward?
We were in the fifth-year of a 10-year contract and in the contract, there was a look-in provision. When you sign long-term contract, neither side knows what's going to happen long-term so we had the ability to look into the marketplace. The last five years have been really good here, particularly in football winning three of five national championships. So the timing for us to renegotiate the contract was good. We believed we had a win-win deal with Learfield and IMG College. We were very pleased we were able to work that out, and I think they are pleased as well.
Are there any new ideas being discussed to enhance the fan experience at Bryant-Denny Stadium?
Yeah. We spend a lot of time every month talking about ways we can make our fans enjoy the experience more. We're competing with other sports, but we're also competing with high-definition television (with people at home) watching our own sports. It's important that we make the experience good for our fans. They need to feel like they're getting more than their money's worth. They need to feel like they can enjoy the game more coming to Bryant-Denny Stadium, or any of our venues, than they do staying home. So, through technology, through customer service, through marketing initiatives and entertainment initiatives, music and all the things we can think of before and after the game and during the game, we're constantly looking for ways to improve the fan experience.
The SEC announced that it was going to remain at eight conference games and keep some of the traditional rivalries. Are you a supporter of the eight-game format?
I understand the league as a whole and their vote for that. Our coach (Nick Saban) and I, I think we would like to see nine (conference) games, but we're a long way from having a consensus on that. I think the compromise was that we'd play eight conference games which gives us a little more flexibility to have a ninth game with one of the other conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC). I think that's certainly an acceptable option. I was very pleased with the vote to keep our permanent cross-division rivalries. Our relationship with Tennessee has been special. I've been in the locker room for both sides and I can tell you that the players, coaches and fans from both schools hold that rivalry dear. It's been interesting that there have been some pretty long streaks on both sides of teams winning for a good period of time. It's been a great rivalry over the years, so it would be a shame to see that go away. As many great traditional games that have been lost in the past few years with conference expansion, I thought it would have been a shame for our own conference to do away with some of the ones in our league. I'm glad we didn't go that way.
As you mentioned, Saban has been supportive of a nine-game schedule. In your mind, is there anything that can make the league move to nine games?
Not in the near future. I think the mood of the conference is that the SEC is tough enough. It's probably the toughest league throughout the conference of any (other conference). That it would be a disadvantage too. We don't have problems, or never have at this juncture, with strength of schedule. The SEC is tough in every sport that we play. You look at all of our sports and you can be eighth in the country, but fifth in the conference in some of those sports. So I fully understand where they are coming from. It might happen one of these days, but I think the alternative that we have in place is sound.
How do you think the new playoff system changes the way all of the conferences look at things such as strength of schedule and everything else?
Strength of schedule has never been an Alabama problem. For most SEC schools, it's never been a problem for the ones who competed for spots in the BCS games. It adds a lot of interest to fans and also, it adds two more teams that can get into the national championship hunt. I think the BCS did a great job for college football with what it was trying to do, which is to match No. 1 and No. 2. People forget that it wasn't that long ago that the only way No. 1 and No. 2 could play was if there was an independent either at one or two playing a conference champion because all the conference champions were married to the bowl games and they couldn't switch. So it evolved over three or four different ideas and the BCS was the latest one. There's no question in my mind that the BCS and its predecessors made college football's regular season a playoff atmosphere every week. Every game is important. You can't relax or rest a bit. There is nothing like college football's regular season. The NCAA tournament in basketball is a great event, but it's one of the factors that has made the regular season not very important to fans and others, the media even because it goes on and if you're in the tournament, you're in the tournament. That's when everybody zooms in. I think what we've had is good. The more games you add, the more difficult it is. In the SEC, you get the regular season and then you have to play in the SEC championship game, which is like a playoff game. For the past few years, it's sort of been like a semifinal. The SEC champion has gone on to to the championship game. Now you go from that to the opportunity of playing two more games. That had a lot to do with why I think a lot of teams didn't want to add one more SEC game.
Now that you've had a year to work with him, what's your relationship like with Saban?
It's good. He's probably the most intense and focused guy that I've ever been around. His interest is in having a championship football team, but his biggest interest is in making sure all his players are successful academically and behavior wise and being good citizens. Everything he does helps raise the level across the board. I think it has helped all of our sports. He helps recruit for all of our sports if they ask him to. He wants them all to be successful. So our relationship is very good.
With the latest contract extension the university gave him, is that a matter of keeping him here until he retires or just trying to keep other teams away?
We wanted him to feel like this was the place he wanted to stay until he retired. That was what we were hoping to accomplish and I think that we have. He's the best football coach in America, we wanted to reward him for being the best football coach in America and I think we have. I think he and (wife) Terry are happy here. They're doing a great job and we're delighted. We just wanted him to see that we hold him in that high esteem.
What were your thoughts on the hiring of Lane Kiffin as the offensive coordinator?
My first reaction, because I didn't know Lane, wasn't very positive. I talked to Coach Saban about it. He asked me if I had ever met him and I said no. He said 'Why don't you meet him?' He had him in for a visit, I spent about an hour with him and I was very impressed. I followed up and talked to several different people. I called (athletic director) Pat Haden at Southern California. I talked to David Blackbird, who's the AD at UT-Chattanooga. David was the compliance officer for football at Tennessee when Lane was there. They both told me that they thought he would be a great fit here and I got really comfortable with it. Now that I've spent a fair amount of time with Lane, I'm really impressed. Our players are impressed and I think our coaches are impressed with how he's gone about things. I think he'll be very successful here.
With D.J. Pettway being allowed back onto the team, it was met with mixed reviews. On one side, people viewed it as Alabama giving a kid a second chance. But there were also people who saw it as Alabama letting a criminal play on its football team. What are your thoughts on that and what went into the decision to allow him to become a member of the team again?
I wasn't here when the incident happened and they were suspended. Coach Saban said of the group, D.J. was the best of the group and the only one he would consider having back. Our people think D.J. is a good young man that made some bad choices with the people he was with and the things that he did. He had a pretty severe penalty. He knew that if he was going to right that wrong he had to change. From everything we know, he did. His junior college coaches had great things to say about him. He did what he was suppose to do in academics as well as football play and earned his way back into the conversation. We reviewed it and talked to him. Talked to him at length about what was expected of him and he was remorseful for what he did and said he learned his lesson. From everything I can tell, he's done really well since he's been back here.
Switching gears to basketball, if you had to put a percentage on it, how much Alabama basketball did you watch this year?
I watched every time I could, either at the game, on television or radio. I thought we were going to have a pretty good team this year. We had a pretty good team last year (2012-13). It didn't end the way we wanted it to, but we finished strong. Going into this season, after last year, Alabama had won more SEC games than anybody in the last three years other than Florida and Kentucky. At the end of this year, Florida has won 55 games, Kentucky has won 50, Tennessee has won 40 and Alabama has won 39.
So, Alabama hasn't been a bad team. It's been a pretty darn good team, in my opinion. Going into this season, we made some tactical or maybe even strategic errors. The conference is concerned that SEC teams in general aren't playing good enough non-conference opponents RPI-wise, which has hurt us at the end of the year when tournament time comes. We used to get six or seven teams, but in the last few years, we've been getting three. That's a significant financial loss for the conference as well as a loss of pride because our teams are pretty good. However, Anthony (Grant) believes, whether the conference would have done it or not, that you have to play good non-conference games. We probably scheduled too many good ones in a row. As an old coach, I always believed players are really important, coaches are really important, but schedule can be the most important of all. How your schedule plays out is really important. We wanted to play better teams and we did. It wasn't like our team was bad. We played a bad game or two, but basketball is a long season. We made it longer because we thought playing in Europe would get our team together and they would gel. Sometimes it works that way, but it made for a really long season. Probably looking back, we wouldn't have done things exactly that way. Whether that would have made a difference, I don't know. Your idea is that if you play tougher non-conference games, it toughens you up and gets you sharper for when conference play starts. But there's some point that if you don't win some of them, you lose confidence. To me, in the middle of the season, it looked like we had a serious loss of confidence when the game got on the line. There are some teams that when the game gets on the line, they just reach down and go get it, and we didn't have that it, whatever it is. I think confidence has a lot to do with that. So, I don't think it was a lack of talent. We didn't have the most talent in the league, but we were a pretty talented team, I thought. So I don't think we're that far away. I think Anthony does a great job of coaching. I know he has great character. I know he believes in what he's doing. I think his knowledge of the game is good and I think he does a good job of reaching the players and motivating them to play. His history is always (having his players) play hard. They play hard for 40 minutes. That's what I judge people by.
I thought it would have been a mistake not to bring Anthony back. He's got five years left on his contract. I never thought about not bringing him back. I mean I thought about it, but not seriously about it.
In your mind, what would be considered improvement? Is that a number of wins? Making the tournament?
It's how we play. Everybody will know whether we improved or not. Anthony wants to win championships. He will win championships. I believe he'll win them here at Alabama. Our goal is to get to the tournament and get the most out of our players. Basketball is an interesting sport these days. One-and-done is an interesting concept. There are some great players that can and go, so that's one set of problems. There are a lot of players and their parents who think 'We're going to go in and be one-and-done.' Then they don't perform that way and then they get to thinking 'Well it can't be me. It must be the system. Maybe I'll go look somewhere else.' I think there were 500 players that transferred in college basketball this year. There's a lot of turnover that has to do with that whole concept in my judgement. We used to have players who'd stay and the third and fourth year, you'd have a pretty good team. Florida and Tennessee had that this year. Not too many have that where players stay around. Hopefully, we can get here. We had a few transfer the year before for some unusual reasons, I think, and when you lose numbers, that hurts you. So hopefully we'll get back to a full allotment of players and we can continue to build continuity and keep getting better. That's our goal.
Now I know the university has the new baseball stadium coming. The right field section really took off this year. How do you plan to handle that going forward when the new stadium is in place?
We're still thinking about that. Our goal was to create something that we really created. We thought it was going to take longer to do it. It only took a couple of days. The students were so pleased and turned on. The players, and the players' family's in particular, were pleased with the student support. The students have been great.
There are some knuckleheads that screw things up for people. There were a couple of things that happened in the second or third game. Everybody was happy the first game. The second game it filled up. The third game, I think the headline said 'Come to party city' and there was a guy with a beer bong. That isn't an image that makes our president and our trustees happy. I called the president of the SGA, Jimmy Taylor, and said 'Look, we can send the gestapo in and do all of this, but this needs to be a work in progress. We need to be somewhere between what keeps the students happy and what makes the president and trustees proud and doesn't embarrass us.' He said 'You're right. We'll get right on it.' He met with the presidents of the fraternities. Our people went out and met with them. We can up with the system that we got to wristband the ones of age and not wristband, but stamp the hands of ones not of age.
I went out there and spent some time myself. All of them were having a good time and they were all very appreciative of what we have. So, our goal is to continue that. We have to figure out exactly how, if we include that in the stadium or leave it outside of the stadium, or how we treat it, but we're going to try to keep it doing the same thing that it's doing now with responsible, enthusiastic behavior from the students. That's what we want to get.
(Women's basketball coach) Kristy Curry was your first hire on the job. You feel like that one was a slam dunk with some of the success you had this year?
Yeah. We found out she was interested and she went to the top of our list and we didn't talk to anyone else after that. I'm so pleased with the job that she and Kelly, her husband, and her staff have done. They have made a remarkable turnaround. It was great a improvement from the first game they played to the last home game. They didn't play as well in the tournament as they wanted to, but it was a remarkable turnaround in every aspect. So, I'm really proud and pleased with Kristy.
Are there any other facility upgrades or renovations coming in the near future?
We'll open the rowing facility (fall 2014). Baseball (fall 2015) is the next big project that we got. We got Bryant-Denny stadium, before next fall, we'll put in digital signage and point of sale materials and televisions around the concourses to make that look a little more professional. We'll continue to try to figure out how to improve Wi-Fi and the use of cellphones in the stadium. It's gotten a little better. We're trying to get AT&T and Verizon to build some infrastructure in there. I heard a few weeks ago that Bryant-Denny Stadium is the second most valuable structure in the state. It's valued at $740 million, behind only the state capital. Everybody I tell that to from Alabama says Bryant-Denny Stadium is worth a whole lot more than the state capital. It is to us and there's a reverence when you walk in there, at least when I do, you think about the history and the great players and coaches that have been there and made history. History is still being made there. We have great coaches and players now and have won three out of the last five national championships and have been in the hunt for the other ones. Hopefully, we'll get there again.