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Bill Battle: There's No Shortcut to Success

April 21, 2012
By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine



Bill Battle: "There's No Shortcut to Success"

At six foot two inches, Bill Battle looks tall as he sits stretched out in the conference room chair at the Collegiate Licensing Company in Atlanta; legendary in the world of collegiate marketing.  Its beginning dates back to 1981, as Golden Eagle Enterprises in Selma, AL, and was renamed upon its move east.  Only his silver hair gives a hint of his age.   Otherwise, he looks fit enough to don a football uniform, run down the field, snatch the ball out of the air with his long arms, and score a touchdown.  Something he did many times as an end playing for the University of Alabama under Coach “Bear” Bryant from 1959 to 1962. And his “end” swung both ways; he also played defense.

A member of Coach Bryant’s first national championship team in 1961, he graduated from Alabama in 1963. Bill followed his playing days by entering the coaching profession as an assistant at the University of Oklahoma, under Coach Bud Wilkerson, where he received his masters.

From 1964-1965, he served a two-year military tour at the U.S. Military Academy, which included work as an assistant football coach, under head coach, Paul Dietzel. He arrived at the University of Tennessee in 1966, as an assistant to Hall of Fame Coach Doug Dickey. In 1970, when Coach Dickey left for Florida, the 28 year-old assumed the head coaching position, becoming the youngest coach at the time. He achieved a 59-22-2 record and five straight bowl appearances with three teams finishing in the top ten.

Bill was named first team tight end and second team defensive end on the University of Alabama All Decade Team of the 1960’s. Three national championships were won during that period.

In 1981, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and was the first member inducted into the National Collegiate Licensing Association Hall of Fame in 2000. He has been named one of Street & Smith's 20 Most Influential People in College Athletics. He currently serves on the boards of the Bank of North Georgia, the Crimson Tide Foundation, the University of Alabama A-Club Educational and Charitable Foundation, and the National football Foundation/College Football Hall of Fame.   

In 2008, Bill was honored with one of the National Football Foundation’s highest award, The Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football Award. The NFF mission is to build leaders through football.  NFF President & CEO, Steve Hatchell said, "We are thrilled to honor this year's major award winners as not only leaders within our football community but as outstanding members of society."

Other inductees include John Glenn, former astronaut and United States Senator; T. Boone Pickens, business tycoon; and Gene Smith, athletic director at Ohio State.

In 2008, Bill was inducted into the prestigious Licensing Industry Manufacturer Association (LIMA) Hall of Fame.  In 2009, he was inducted into the National Association of College Marketing Administrator (NACS) Hall of Fame, and in February, 2011, he will be inducted into the state of Tennessee Hall of Fame that will honor him with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

“I was born the day WWII was declared, December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.” Bill says.  “I can’t imagine how scared my parents must have been about that time.”   They lived in College Hills, right across from Birmingham Southern College, in Birmingham, AL, where his dad, William R. Battle, Jr., taught, coached and was the athletic director for more than 30 years. His mother, Kathleen Scruggs Battle, a graduate of Birmingham Southern, dedicated herself to rearing Bill and his sister, LeMerle.  Later, “Momma Kat”, as she was effectually known, became a junior high English teacher.

Reflecting on his participation in athletics, Bill replies, “I grew up playing ball.  The first organized sports I remember playing was YMCA baseball for 11-13 year olds.”  He also played on the 110 pound football team, coached by Larry Striplin. Larry was a basketball player at Birmingham Southern, who supplemented his scholarship by coaching.  Many years later, Bill would go to work for Larry in Selma, Alabama, the birthplace of CLC.

High school football players from around Birmingham coached YMCA teams. Bill says of those students, “They were good players; we learned a lot about baseball. Those guys were headstrong in faith and good character and good role models for young guys coming along.”

“Sports have always in my mind been a great way to spend time,” he continues. “My mother used to say, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’  And what sports do for young people is provide an expenditure of time and energy; it wears your butt out and you don’t feel like doing that bad stuff.  You get home, eat a meal, do some studying, and go to bed.”

His Alma Mater, West End High School, in Birmingham, won six games in four years, from 1955-1958. Four of those wins were in his senior year.  “The high school newspaper read, ‘West End in Successful Grid Season 4-4-1.’  And it was all relative to what we had done the year before,” Bill explains.

In high school he was young for his age compared to his peers. As his birthday is in December, he was already an early starter compared to most.  He then skipped a grade in grammar school and entered high school as a freshman with much older students. The result was that he was just sixteen when he finished playing high school ball.

Reminiscing, he says, “There was a guy four or five years ahead of me, a guy named Keith Wilson, and he led West End to the State Championship in 1953. I remember being there as a little kid, with some of my buddies, watching the West End football team practice in pre-season with no coaches. Keith was leading this intense workout.  As he had the team running and sweating in the summer heat, someone said, ‘Hey, we’ll get enough of this hard stuff when the coaches get out here – let’s take it easy.’  Keith walked up to the guy, got nose to nose with him, and said, ‘There’s no shortcut to success.’  And that was like hitting me upside the head with a baseball bat.  His example of leadership made a huge impression on me and on my philosophy of life. You can’t cut corners and be successful.”

Many years later, Wilson was the coach at Robert E. Lee High School in Huntsville, AL., where Condredge Holloway played ball.  Bill successfully recruited Condredge as quarterback for the University of Tennessee where he became one of Tennessee’s all-time best players.

Describing his own high athletic ability, Bill says, “I thought I was a great baseball player coming into high school with my 11-13 year old playing experience,” he announces with pride. “I was excited about playing baseball in high school and I was so awful in football in my freshman year, and slow.  There was one guy on the football team who when we ran wind sprints we would fight it out to not be last. And when I wasn’t last that was a good day.”

When baseball season began, his coach announced to him, “You’re not going to play baseball, instead you are going to run track; the 440 yard dash.” Bill explains that his purpose was to teach him to run.  But at the time Bill thought that was the worst thing he could do to “a little kid.”

The coach had the right idea.

During his junior and senior year a dramatic change took place: Bill grew about six inches.  “I went from a dumpy little kid to being tall and skinny. And my speed improved quite a bit,” he says.

And it had an impact on one of his proudest achievements.

“In my senior year,” he tells, “I made it to the finals of the state track meet in the 440.  “I came in last,” he emphasizes, “but I ran my fastest time and I was really proud of making it into the finals with the fastest eight guys in the state.  I still view that as one of the biggest athletic accomplishments in my life.”

In relating to his father’s influence, Bill says, “I was always taught that the Battle name was important.  The people who had gone before us were responsible for the name and we needed to honor the name by doing the best we could at whatever it was we were doing.”  The family motto seems to be, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’

Bill says that his dad’s life revolved around teaching people to swim or play tennis, or golf.  And he instilled in him the love of teaching.  “Though, my dad never pushed me to play anything.  I never felt like I needed to play sports.  I grew up really, really, wanting to play; I found myself always wanting to do better in sports,” he says.  He thinks for a minute, and then continues, “Sports and life are journeys, not destinations.  You can always do it better than what you are doing.  And Dad painted that picture for me in a way that made me want to excel and to improve in anything I ever did.  Coach Bryant certainly reinforced that message.”

He remembers his parents as being traditional parents; his dad was the disciplinarian and his mom was the one who loved and picked him and his sister up and assured them everything was okay when things were tough.  Church, family, education, and community were important to them.

He remembers some of his mom’s sayings, such as, ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop’, and ‘Nothing good happens after twelve o’clock [midnight].’ “My parents were responsible for all the good things I ever got into because they practiced what they preached,” he says.

As to the importance of education, Bill relates this story: “Education was important to them; my mother was an English teacher and I wasn’t very good at grammar.  I learned to write it well, I just couldn’t talk it very well.   I remember one year she said, ‘Please, if you would just speak better grammar, I will give you ten dollars for Christmas.’  Now ten dollars was a lot of money to me and she gave me the ten dollars but I don’t think I improved ten dollars’ worth. “

Bill recalls his chemistry teacher, Mr. Baughan, as someone who especially influenced his life. “He was the toughest teacher in school. He would load you up with homework and he would embarrass you if you came to class ill prepared or didn’t know what you were doing.  He made you study.”   For Bill the lesson was learned: be prepared.

 

In December, 1958, Bill received the telegram that he still has, announcing his acceptance to the University of Alabama football team under Coach Paul Bryant.

He does not remember his first meeting with Coach Bryant.  Though he admits, with a hint of instilled intimidation, “There were many I do.”

“What I do remember,” he continues, “is that he was named to the head coaching position at the University of Alabama immediately after the 1957 season was over.  Alabama had lost ten games that season, including to Auburn, 40 to 0.  Nobody scored forty points a game. Not back in those days,” he emphasizes.  Auburn won the national championship that year.

As to what lead him to choose Alabama over other schools, he says, “Bud Moore, one of my high school teammates, went to Alabama on scholarship the year before Coach Bryant came.  Bud kept me informed about all the changes occurring at Alabama during Coach Bryant’s first year.  I was invited to Campus that first spring to watch Alabama practice.”  Bill was impressed with their style of play as they were doing things he had never seen. “Coach Bryant talked about wanting players who were small, quick, fast, in great shape, and hard-nosed.  I was very impressed,” he relates.

Continuing, he says, “The impact of Bryant’s arrival with his style of coaching was felt almost the first day. I finally met Coach Bryant when I was a senior and I thought, ‘Boy, if you could play four years for this guy, you could really be something.’”

Out of high school, Bill was recruited by Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Florida and several others including Auburn.  Alabama won out.

In comparing the meager won-loss record from high school to his college experience, he says, “Going from a high school team that won six games in four years to a college team that went 29-2-2 and won a national championship during my three varsity years, was a great educational experience.  We were always incredibly well prepared. Coach Bryant and his staff emphasized ‘the little things’ and taught that the ‘winning edge’ was achieved in close games in two or three plays.  If all eleven men gave everything they had on every play, the chances were good that those critical plays would go our way.”

On Coach Bryant, Bill explains that, “He was demanding. He expected you to give effort all the time and he expected it even from coaches.  And he did motivate a lot by fear. The players were afraid of him, but his coaches may have been more afraid than we were. He was a big, tall, tough, gruff guy, and early in his career he was probably a little more physical towards players than he was later on.”

Asked if they knew about the Junction Boys he replies, “Oh yea!”

In comparing Coach Bryant’s coaching style to them he relates, “His first spring at Alabama there were a lot of bags drug down the stairs late at night going home.  There were many who started who didn’t finish that first winter work out.  They sorted the chaff from the wheat.”

To contrast Coach Bryant’s style of coaching, Bill relates the following: “I remember we were playing at Mississippi State my sophomore year and we weren’t playing very well, but we were ahead 7-0 at half time.  During the half, Pat Trammell [quarterback], was sitting up front in the locker room.  He had his helmet off and was drinking a Coke and we were waiting for the coaches to come in.  Coach Bryant walked in, grabbed Trammell, shook him, and said to the whole group, ‘You bunch of sorry guys (but much worse, Bill says almost apologetically); this is the worst I have ever seen and I am ashamed of you…!’  Afterwards, everyone was uptight, but we went out and won the game. But we still looked sorry.”

“A few weeks later,” he continues the analysis, “we are in Atlanta, playing Georgia Tech; Tech was in the conference then, and it was a big game for us.  Bobby Dodd was the [Georgia Tech] coach and they were pretty good.  We were down 15 to 0 at the half.  The visitors’ locker room at Tech was a theater style room with risers, so everybody hurried to get in the back of the room.  No one got near the front.  About five minutes went by and no Coach.  We didn’t know what he was going to do.  So we waited.  Finally, he comes walking in with his hands in his pocket; he had big old baggy pants and when he was thinking he would rattle the change or keys in his pockets. And he was whistling.  He said, ‘Alright, we got them right where we want them.  They ain’t as good as I thought they were. We just need to do a few different things.’” Bill says the team did not know exactly how to respond. “So, we went out in the second half and won by the score of 16-15 by kicking a field goal as time ran out.”

In relating football to life, Bill says, “Coach Bryant did a good job, such as in the fourth quarter when times are tough and your tired, and that white stuff is coming up in your mouth, and your muscles hurt, and that guy has been pounding on your head all day and that’s when you have to reach down and get something extra and that’s when you win the game.”

Seizing upon the moment of opportunity was one such lesson:  “He talked about when you are in a close game - there are two, three, maybe four plays, and the outcome of those plays determines the game.  Sometimes there is only one play. And you win the game instead of losing it, or you lose the game instead of winning it.  But you never know when those opportunities are coming so you had better be prepared.  And if you do that, then your chances of winning are going to be good,” he shares.

Another lesson from Coach Bryant was that he always talked about having a plan. “If you were thirty-five points ahead have a plan at half, if behind, have a plan.  He emphasized that you had better have a plan for what you are going to do.  You can’t just let the waves carry you or you’ll wind up going somewhere you don’t want to go.”  Then he adds, “He and my mother and dad are the most three influential people in my life. Without their guidance I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

During Bill’s freshman year (freshmen were ineligible to play), Alabama went 7-2-2 and was invited to the Liberty Bowl to play Penn State at State College. In the cold and snow Alabama lost 7-0. In his sophomore year Alabama went 8-1-2 and played Texas to a 3-3 tie in the Bluebonnet Bowl.  In his junior year Alabama went undefeated. “We had a really good team and we shut out, I think, 6 teams,” he reflects.

They did.

When Coach Bryant came to Alabama, he told the team, ‘If you’ll do what we tell you to do and do it to the best of your ability, we can win a National Championship in four years.’” Bill admits that coming from such a poor high school team, he had never learned to think about championships as a realistic goal.  He reflected that it did not take long at Alabama to see that they could do it.

They did.

That 1961 squad completed the regular season 10–0–0, winning the Southeastern Conference championship.  Led by quarterback Pat Trammell, linebacker Lee Roy Jordan, Billy Neighbors, the two–way lineman, and Bill at end position(s), Alabama outscored their opponents 297–25. Alabama was then invited to play Arkansas who was nationally ranked at #9, in the January 1, 1963 Sugar Bowl. Alabama won 10–3 to finish the season 11–0–0.  They were selected National Champions by the AP and Coaches' Polls.

With pride he says, “In 1957, Auburn beat Alabama 40-0.”  Then the tide turned quickly and dramatically. “In 1958,” he continues, “Coach Bryant’s first year, a guy dropped a pass in the end zone that would have beat Auburn. And the four years I was in school Auburn didn’t score a point.”

“But you know,” he mused, “often, when people experience success, they think they have earned their keep and they don’t need to improve anymore. And the difference between the good ones and the great ones is they always have that burning desire in their gut to always do better; they want more.  Even to the end Coach Bryant had a burning in his gut that he wanted to do better.  If he didn’t win it all he wasn’t satisfied. The record setters don’t let success dull their edge and make them complacent.”

The conversation shifted to his coaching days at the University of Tennessee. Bill arrived in 1966 as a receivers coach under Doug Dickey. He became head coach in 1970.

 

Bill’s journey from a player at Alabama to the head coach at Tennessee was woven with a myriad of chance encounters, including one ill-tempered typewriter.

As a junior at Alabama, Bill decided to make coaching his profession.  And he felt he had learned a lot about the Alabama system and thought it wise to learn another system under a different staff.  So, to broaden his experience, he wanted to coach under Bud Wilkinson, at the University of Oklahoma.  Bill’s choosing Oklahoma was simple: “Coach Wilkinson was the chairman of President Kennedy’s national physical fitness program. “  Bill thought no one could better prepare him. 

Bill wrote a letter of his intentions to the University, but no response was ever sent back.

But as fortune would have it, Alabama played Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, which was Bill’s last game.  At the post-game banquet (later, post-game banquets between the two teams were changed to pre-game banquets, as the losing team usually failed to show), Coach Bryant introduced Bill to Coach Wilkinson, and he soon found himself in Norman.

Athletics was not the only success Bill found at the University; he was also involved in R.O.T.C. (for Bill that stands for Army).  He was able to obtain a one-year deferment while attending the University of Oklahoma, before serving his required two years. Otherwise, Bill would have found himself in Jasper, Alabama, being assigned to a 105MM Howitzer battery. 

The following spring, Coach Wilkinson resigned as head coach to pursue politics.  And Bill was facing employment with the federal government (again, U.S. Army).

Some of Bill’s friends told him that it may be possible to coach at West Point (the Military Academy) in order to serve out his military obligation.

But there were two problems facing Bill:  First, Bill knew that Paul Dietzel was the head coach at West Point, but he did not know him.  Second, Bill did not have a clue where West Point was.  After looking it up in the Encyclopedia, he was disappointed to find it in New York.

A simple letter to Coach Dietzel was sent, and soon afterwards, so was Bill - to West Point.

Two years later, with his obligation to Uncle Sam nearly up, he went job-searching.  And he wanted to coach in the Southeastern Conference, so he listed all the head coaches on a piece of paper.  After deciding that it may not be ethical to have a secretary type an employment letter, he decided to type it himself. 

The first letter was addressed to Coach Doug Dickey, University of Tennessee. And as he was typing on the electric typewriter, a key kept getting stuck, resulting in one long sentence spelled with the same letter.  After several attempts, he finished with the only letter he ever sent. 

And Coach Dickey hired him.

 

He strums the table with his long fingers as he describes how the head coaching job at Tennessee transpired: “I had just turned twenty -eight years old and Coach Dickey left Tennessee to take the Florida job.  Bob Woodruff, who was the Athletic Director at Tennessee, talked to our offensive and defensive coordinators, and me.  And I thought the offensive coordinator was going to get it; he had played for Coach Woodruff at Florida and was a good coach. And Coach Woodruff wanted to keep the staff intact; he thought we had a good staff, and we did.  When I found out he was going to name me, I was a little surprised that he had enough guts to name a twenty- eight – year - old guy. But I also thought he was pretty smart.”

Reflecting on that time, he says, “What I learned really quickly was that the guy who sat in the big chair’s life was a lot different than the guy who sat in the surrounding chairs.”

Bill still stays in touch with many of his former players, “Who actually aren’t much younger than me,” he says with a smile.

Addressing those years at Tennessee, he says, “We had some good teams and some that weren’t quite so good.  But you have to put it into perspective; you have success and you have failure.  You learn that when you win you are a hero much more than you deserve and when you lose you are a goat far worse than you deserve. So you don’t worry about it; you do the best you can. If you can look yourself in the eye and say I did the best I could with what I had then you can move on.”

The conversation shifted to post Tennessee. “I had a couple of job offers to coach,” he says. “But all I had ever done in my adult life was coach football.   I wanted to see how other people lived.  I didn’t know if I could stay out of coaching, but the ages of my kids were as such that I hadn’t spent much time with them.  I always felt I could get a job back in coaching if I needed to.”

After Tennessee Bill looked into several things and eventually settled in Selma, Alabama, working for Larry Striplin, at Disco Aluminum Products, a window company. Larry also owned Nelson Brantley Glass Company, headquartered in Birmingham.

 Bill says, “During the six years I was in Selma, the enterprise grew from two companies, doing $12 million in annual sales, to ten companies doing $60 million in annual sales.  And the growth was fueled by Larry’s leadership and salesmanship.  It was a great business educational experience for me.”

It was at Selma that Bill started the Golden Eagle Enterprises, renamed Collegiate Licensing Company upon moving to Atlanta in 1984.

The transition from coaching to business, though, was huge, as he explains. “When you go from being the coach at the University of Tennessee and your reading in the paper about where you are or where you are going every day; sometimes it was true and some of the time it wasn’t true, and you go to someplace that nobody cares about what you do, it’s challenging.”

“Anytime you change careers, it’s a challenge.” He says. “You have to take several steps back before you see the rewards of your efforts because you are learning something new.”

Landing Bill and his family from Knoxville to Selma was also a challenge. And it involved a conspiracy.

Coach Bryant called him one day and asked if he knew Larry Striplin.  Bill affirmed that he knew him.  Coach Bryant says, “Well, I’m on his board and he wants you to work for him in Selma.”  Bill thought to himself, I’m not going to Selma, Alabama!

Several days later, Larry calls Bill, and says, “I want you to come visit us.”  Bill replies, “Larry, I’m not going to work in Selma.” He answers back, “Well, come play golf with me.  I’ll send the plane.”  Bill responds, “I’ll come play golf with you, but I’m not going to work for you.”

Bill flew to Selma and as he relates to his own surprise,” I was impressed with what they were doing.”

It was 1977, and energy in the United Sates was just beginning to be perceived as a problem, as gasoline prices rose to $1.50 a gallon. Many gas stations had long lines, while others had no gas to sell.  In Europe, energy had been a problem for decades as they faced shortages and high prices.  This led them to develop energy efficient products.   Larry’s company had developed a European style, energy efficient window.  Larry convinced Bill that energy problems were real in the U.S., and that his company was well positioned for growth.

But he was still hesitant about moving his family to Selma, Alabama. 

As he researched the area, he was persuaded when several of his close friends and family members gave advice on how wonderful Selma, Alabama was.  As it turned out, “Selma was a great place at that time for those six years we were there,” he admits.  “Life revolved around the school and the church and the country club.  It was a sheltered environment in some ways.  I really enjoyed our time in Selma.”

As the company grew, it became very exciting, and challenging.  Bill says that they enjoyed dramatic success, but with that came growing pains.

Then, in 1981, a “Unique set of circumstances led to our company representing Coach Bryant’s commercial interests,” he relates.  “I had the privilege to manage the business, which soon led to our involvement in starting the collegiate licensing business.”  In 1983, Bill bought out the division and moved it to Atlanta.

Bill finished with these thoughts about his success, both on and off the field of sports: “There are people that you learn from and help you; whether they are coaches, teachers, mentors, players, or co-workers, family or friends.  This is a team world for the most part. And in team sports, you succeed or fail together.  You are motivated to do your best, not only because you want to win, but because you don’t ever want to let your teammates down.  Football, I think, is very educational in that there aren’t many places in society today where you have to pay a physical price to succeed.”

He concludes, “I may not have been the smartest, but I wanted to be the hardest worker around and I never wanted to make the same mistake twice. I wanted to do whatever needed to be done. I have been truly blessed to be around many great people in my life who are responsible for any successes I have enjoyed.”

 

Photography by Fred Beeson

 

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