TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Bill Battle recently completed the second year of his four-year term as Alabama's athletic director.
This week, Battle spoke with the Anniston Star about what his expectations are for new basketball coach Avery Johnson, issues around college football and more.
Your big hire this year was new men's basketball coach Avery Johnson. Everyone sees the personality, but how has it been working with him since he took over?
He's been great. He's been great ever since I met him. I'm more impressed with him every time I meet with him. He's high energy. He creates energy wherever he goes. I watched practice the other day and his practices are definitely high energy. I think we're in for a treat. I don't know how good we're going to be, but we're going to play with energy and hustle and be a whole lot quicker than we've been in the past. How that translates in wins and losses remains to be seen, but I believe that Avery can sell players to come to Alabama who are talented players that want to get into the NBA. I think he can sell parents on Alabama being a good place for their kids to come. I know I was a whole lot better coach when I had good players than I was when I didn't have good players. Avery is a high energy guy who doesn't sleep much. I continue to be impressed with how he thinks, how he makes decisions and does the things that he does.
Avery Johnson is trying to change the culture and put his stamp on the program. What are some realistic expectations for him in year one?
I don't know. Talent-wise, I think we are somewhere around the middle of the pack. I think we had a pretty good (2015) recruiting class. I saw we were picked to finish in the bottom of the league by some people. We like the players that we have.
The transfer we got from Memphis (Nick King) is pretty good. He can help us in practice, but I wish he could play this year because he could help us. (King is sitting out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules.) But we have a good group of players coming back. Hopefully, we can keep on where we're not losing players and get a good senior class every year then start to stack players and get some very talented players to come here.
When Avery Johnson first arrived, one of the things he talked about was revamping the fan experience at Coleman Coliseum. Where are you guys at in that process?
That's easier said than done, but we're in the process of studying that and trying to put a plan together. We're going to make some changes and try to make it a lot more exciting.
We hope that we can turn the students on and get them more engaged. We hope we can do that for our whole fanbase. We've got some big ideas. We're just trying to figure out how to implement them and get them done -- which again, with our current system of tickets is not exactly easy. We're studying how to do that to get the most impact with the least stress and strain.
The baseball program didn't have the season (32-28, 12-18 SEC) you and many others had hoped for. Where's the confidence level in (head coach) Mitch Gaspard going forward?
I like Mitch. I think he's a good coach. I know that he had a tough year this year, tougher than either one of us thought it'd be. One of the athletic directors who's a baseball guy said, "The SEC's pretty tough, and he (Gaspard) might have over-scheduled in the non-conference schedule." We scheduled some heavy hitting teams. The majority of our opponents were in the top 25.
We thought playing in Birmingham (Hoover Met) would be easier than it was, but it really was like playing a road game every time. Another thing that was hard for them was that we practiced here, and we left the field, but there was heavy equipment around. He didn't always have the full field to practice on and that hurt him.
And we lost a lot of close games. We were competitive in most games, most series. While weather is a factor for both teams, we ended up playing a lot of double-headers because of rescheduling for weather. So it didn't play out well for us. It was a lot tougher than we thought.
I go back to our (women's) tennis program. Jenny Mainz has been here now for close to 20 years. Up until the new indoor facility got built (2012), she was below .500. When the new facility got built, all of a sudden -- maybe we started getting better players, maybe she got a lot smarter -- she's been SEC Coach of the Year three out of the last four years. I'm not sure she's gotten all that smarter, but I think facilities do make a difference. Our stadium was ranked No. 13, but I think it'll be in the top two when this is finished. There's more to it than coaching and recruiting. We think we have a pretty good class, and we think we have a pretty good nucleus. But I'm encouraged and I think we have a good shot of turning it around. Our team is really excited, and has been for two years, about the new stadium. I think they'll take that seriously. I'm looking for improvement.
The SEC meetings were last month. One of the bigger things to come out of those meetings was the league passing the "serious misconduct" rule, stating that SEC schools are no longer allowed to take transfers with "serious misconduct" issues at their previous school. (The conference defines "serious misconduct" as "sexual assault, domestic violence or other forms of sexual violence.") Were you in support of that?
There are a couple of things on that particular rule. I agree with Coach (Nick) Saban. I don't see why we need different rules in the SEC that the rest of the Power 5 conferences don't have. I think whatever rules we restrict ourselves to should be competitive with them.
I don't think it's a bad rule. I don't think there's a problem with penalizing for how they define serious misconduct. But there are a lot more serious conduct issues that should be included in that definition of what serious misconduct is. I think that'll happen down the road. I think the conference wanted to make a statement about that particular offense, and I'm OK with that. That's not a bad rule. I just wish everybody else had to live with the same thing. And if you were caught with a gun, cocaine or any other bad things, I think the definition (of the rule) should be broaden considerably.
A lot of people pointed to this rule as the "Jonathan Taylor" rule. (Taylor was dismissed from the University of Georgia after being charged with domestic violence. He was accepted at the University of Alabama before being dismissed after he was arrested.) Looking back on the vetting process, what could you guys have done differently in handling this situation?
Looking back, other than not taking him at all, I don't know what we could've done differently. He understood that this was his last chance. He had gotten good reports from the (Copiah-Lincoln) junior college he went to. Coach Saban has had experience both ways. There have been a lot of guys that people thought couldn't make it that ended up making it, but we don't need to stop giving people chances.
Both you and coach Saban have touched on the Power 5 conferences playing by the same rules. Is that a realistic goal?
The five commissioners have been meeting on the NCAA governance changes and the autonomy for probably three years. There's conversation, and certainly there's hope that we can all operate under the same rules and guidelines. Whether we can or not remains to be seen. I'm hopeful that will happen.
Another big topic that continues to come up is cost of attendance. Saban said he believes schools will manipulate their numbers in order to gain a recruiting advantage. How do you see this changing recruiting and college football in general?
This is something that I think, in general, is a good thing. The conference, and the Power 5, voted for full cost of attendance four or five years ago, and it passed. Then it got overridden by the numbers of votes that outnumbered the Power 5 conferences. If that had passed, we probably wouldn't have some of the litigation that we have today like paying players, image and likeness rights and other things. But be that as it may, the idea that we're going to grant student-athletes on scholarship with the full cost of attendance is a good thing.
Now, I think the unintended consequences are not very good -- one of them being the incentives not being in the right place. They've always been in the right place before because the cost of attendance has been in play for decades under federal rule. The only thing it affected was how much you could borrow on a student loan. The incentive was, for the most part, to keep it low.
All of sudden now, it still serves that purpose, but it also is an amount determined to pay out to people. That makes the incentive, maybe, not to keep it low. In the history of the NCAA, it's always been about keeping things level and keeping a level playing field -- how many scholarships you can give and the value of those scholarships. The way this is set up is not necessarily the case.
I think it'll all work out over time. It's caused a lot of consternation. It shouldn't be used as a recruiting advantage or disadvantage. It shouldn't be promoted that way. It shouldn't be an advantage or disadvantage, but with the antitrust laws and the other things that are in play, it is. Again, over time, it'll probably level out and probably be OK. The intention is to give students what it costs to go to school. Not to be able to offer more than the school down the road or the school across the country. We'll see where it goes.
When we spoke last year, you should you were a little skeptical about (offensive coordinator) Lane Kiffin coming in. But then you were able to meet him and warm up to him. How was Year One with Kiffin?
He did as good a coaching job as I've ever seen. What he did with Blake Sims and our offense was pretty incredible. Blake's a good athlete, but he wasn't a good quarterback going into (last) season. He came out of it really a good quarterback. That's to Blake's credit, but Lane had an awful lot to do with it. I was extremely pleased from the first game with what Lane did.
Are there any other facility upgrades or changes in the works?
We did the rowing facility and opened that in the fall. We got the baseball stadium that we're really proud of. The next is the swimming facility. It's really old and needs a lot of help. We're working hard to figure out how to do something with that, but that's a challenge. There are a lot of things on the drawing boards that we'd like to do along the way. We just have to figure out where they fit on the priority list.