When longtime University of Tennessee football fans think of 1970s-era coach Bill Battle, a variety of thoughts come to mind.
Some remember that he became a head coach at 28, that his teams did well in his early years but struggled at the end, or that he later became quite a successful businessman in the licensing business.
Some also remember the popular opinion circulating at the time -- that he was too nice to be a head coach. And many still seem to recall the moving van that was sent to his house during a struggling stretch that brought out negativity among some Vol fans.
For former Coach Battle, however, his era at Tennessee was simply a period of some success and mostly good recollections. Reached over the telephone recently, he candidly said he enjoyed his time heading the Vol football program.
“We have some great memories,” he said. “We had great players and great people we still stay in touch with. The memories are very good.”
Coach Battle had come to Tennessee in 1966, shortly after three Vol assistant coaches had tragically died in an automobile/train collision in Knoxville the previous season. The former Alabama player under Paul “Bear” Bryant had coached a couple of seasons under Paul Dietzel at Army.
At Tennessee, he coached ends as Dickey led Tennessee to SEC championships in 1967 and 1969.
“We had four really good years there,” he said. “I just got to fall in love with the university and Knoxville and East Tennessee.”
Dickey, meanwhile, still had strong feelings for his alma mater, Florida, and left Tennessee to coach there after the 1969 season.
The coach hired to replace him was Battle, who was then only 28 years old.
Mr. Battle recalled that he thought he might be a head coach one day, but was somewhat surprised he was chosen after Dickey left. However, he was overjoyed to accept the task and was soon introduced to all the demands of the job.
“What I learned pretty quickly was there was a big difference between sitting in the seat I had been sitting in as an assistant and sitting in the seat I sat in as the head coach,” he said.
Initially, the program continued the momentum started by Dickey. The 1970 team easily beat Dickey’s first Florida team in a win that satisfied Vol fans greatly, and also defeated Bryant’s Alabama squad on the way to an 11-1 season and Sugar Bowl victory over Air Force.
The 1971 and 1972 teams each went 10-2, and all seemed well.
However, some signs of distress were beginning to appear. The first occurred in the 1972 Alabama game. During this Neyland Stadium encounter in which “Rocky Top” arrived as a new tradition for the UT band, the Vol tradition of finding ways to win seemed to be leaving.
Alabama miraculously scored two touchdowns very late to win 17-10.
The next year, the emotional roller coaster continued when a late fake punt by Tennessee backfired, and Georgia – coached by Vince Dooley, the father of current UT coach Derek Dooley -- came back to beat the Vols, 35-31, also in Knoxville
As the inconsistencies continued, Coach Battle’s teams seemed to start having highs and lows even within single games. After the 1974 season, for example, Tennessee came back for an exciting 7-3 win over Maryland in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, but Coach Battle’s father suffered a heart attack in the stands and later died.
The Battle era was also remembered as a time when black players – such as quarterback Condredge Holloway, running back Haskel Stanback, running back/receiver Stanley Morgan and linebacker Jackie Walker – became marquee faces of the program for the first time.
Future coach Phillip Fulmer was also a standout offensive lineman on Coach Battle’s early teams.
Despite the positive contributions of such good athletes and players, Tennessee continued to decline, although not in a disastrous manner. The 1975 team finished 7-5, which included an embarrassing 21-14 home loss to Hayden Fry’s North Texas State team.
In 1976, the team started with a 21-18 loss to Duke at home in the first game and finished 6-5, forcing the resignation of Battle.
Battle said the team thought it could turn around the program’s fortunes in 1976 after the disappointment of 1975, but it just didn’t happen.
“That year we lost a lot of close games,” he said. “It was one of those things that was not meant to be. We struggled there at the end and didn’t do very well.”
Only in his mid-30s, Mr. Battle was not sure what his future held. Although he did not see himself coaching in his 60s, he was not sure if he could stay away from the profession.
But he decided to try by going to work for a diversified company called Golden Eagle Enterprises in Selma, Ala. The company soon bought another firm that acquired the licensing rights for golfer Jack Nicklaus.
“Through that I learned a lot about licensing,” said Mr. Battle.
Coach Bryant was also on the board of Golden Eagle Enterprises, and at a board meeting, he told Mr. Battle that he was looking to change agents.
Although coach Bryant’s football victories over Tennessee during coach Battle’s last six years helped seal his former player’s fate as the Vol head coach, the same man was about to help ensure Mr. Battle’s success as a businessman.
While developing a licensing program for coach Bryant after signing him in 1981, Mr. Battle realized the University of Alabama did not have a licensing program, either.
So he began looking into that, and remembers wandering around the Alabama campus trying to find the school official with whom he needed to talk. He eventually found the right office – and more success.
He soon signed several schools to contracts, and in 1983 was able to buy out the licensing rights from his employer and form his own company, Collegiate Licensing Company. The company also relocated to Atlanta at that time.
The licensing allows schools to make money off the use of their names on T-shirts, for example, and also prevents businesses from profiting improperly by selling an item with a school’s name or logo on it without permission or without paying a licensing fee.
“It’s been really a fun ride,” he said of the work. “After I started, I never thought about getting back into coaching.”
Despite the apparent differences between being a college football coach and running a business, Mr. Battle said he found a lot of similarities.
“It’s a lot like coaching,” he said. “You hire young people and you try to develop some characteristics in the staff and take a team approach.”
Now in his early 70s and serving primarily as a consultant after CLC was purchased by IMG International in 2007, Mr. Battle is able to reflect more on his life these days. As a result, he said he has enjoyed both jobs he has had.
“Looking back, I loved every minute of both,” he said. “There were some days that were good and some days that weren’t so good in both.”
However, because of the high-profile nature of being a Southeastern Conference head football coach, many Tennesseans will still remember Mr. Battle more for the small number of key losses in a few games than for the large sum of money he has made through his successful business negotiations.
But for Mr. Battle, he has few regrets about his time at Tennessee.
“We had a lot of good fun there and a lot of good memories there,” he said. “I’m thankful I had the opportunity.”