When Bill Battle first stepped on the campus of The University of Alabama as a football player, Bryant-Denny Stadium seated 31,000 fans, Paul “Bear” Bryant hadn’t won a national championship and football players rarely weighed more than 200 pounds. Fifty-two years later, he sits in an office overlooking a multi-million dollar football practice facility and weight room, down the street from a stadium with a capacity of six figures on the campus of a school that’s won 15 national championships, including three of the last four.
Battle, 71, was approved as athletic director last Friday by the UA Board of Trustees and is tasked with sustaining what his predecessor, Mal Moore, left behind. Moore died Saturday because of a pulmonary condition and is responsible for the success of the current Crimson Tide athletic department, which is in the midst of an unprecedented run in its on-field success and facilities upgrades.
“The challenge is great,” Battle said in an interview with The Crimson White Tuesday. “The challenge is to keep our momentum going that Mal and these great staff members and coaches have generated. And not only to keep it going, but I believe you either get better or get worse. So our challenge is to keep working hard.”
Battle called the last three weeks “a whirlwind” for him. Four weeks ago, the position wasn’t even on his radar, but after a period of wrestling with the decision, he has embraced the new role and begun his work. Even at 71, he said he is still learning everyday.
“What I learned a long time ago is that you never quit learning,” Battle said. “Or if you do, you get in trouble.”
One issue students will keep an eye on is his handling of student tickets and attendance, specifically at football games. A Crimson White study in November found that only 69.4 percent of student tickets were used by students during the 2012 season, and many who come to games leave during the middle of the fourth quarter or earlier, especially in blowout games.
“All event managers and entertainment and sports are facing problems of getting people to the venues,” Battle said. “High-definition television is so good, there’s so many other things to do, and it’s really difficult to get people to spend money to come do those things. So I want to take a long hard look at all of our programs in that area.”
However, he said student attendance is vital to the athletic department and is something they will research further as he settles into his role.
“It’s important to me. It’s certainly important to our players and coaches that our students are engaged,” he said. “It hurts their feelings when they don’t come or they come late or leave early. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think we better start figuring out all the questions and engage the students to try to do that.
“We are concerned about that, and we do need to do a better job, and we need to communicate better with the students. We need to understand why it’s not important to them and what would make it more important to them.”
Moore’s commitment to facilities was widely recognized, but one venue went almost untouched during his tenure: Sewell-Thomas Stadium, which hosts Alabama baseball games.
The most recent addition was a clubhouse upgrade in 2010 and an added video board in 2007. But the fan atmosphere leaves a lot to be desired for most fans, and Battle said it will be addressed.
“I know there’s been some improvements made over the last few years to the baseball stadium, but I think we all agree that there needs to be a lot more,” Battle said. “I’m not sure what the timeline is, but I know that’s on our agenda.”
For coaches already on staff, Battle said he will begin a thorough review process over the next six weeks and make judgements going forward. A few programs, like women’s basketball and volleyball, have underachieved as of late, but Battle said nothing will be rushed.
“I don’t want to do anything until I get a chance to look at the big picture,” Battle said. “This hasn’t been built piecemeal. There’s been a plan to it, and I want to understand the plan and understand where we are and understand what our priorities are.”
Battle constantly repeated that “you either get better or you get worse” during the course of an approximately 30-minute interview, and it seems this will be his mantra as he takes over one of the most successful athletics departments in the country. It will be a daunting task and one he was unsure of at first.
But for Battle, the greatest joy, and the biggest influence in his decision to take this position, will be giving back to the place that gave him so much 52 years ago.
“It gives me a chance to pay back some of the debt that I owe to the University for the difference they made in my life, and I hope we can help make
a difference in some other people’s lives as well,” he said. “I’m not doing this to get a better job somewhere after I leave here. I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing this because I want to see the progress and the momentum that Mal and his team has built continue, and I want it to improve.”
Leading in today’s Crimson White: