Alabama athletic director Bill Battle isn't sure any football program has ever topped the Crimson Tide's current run under Nick Saban.
Battle's background and perspective make that high praise, indeed. He played for coach Paul “Bear” Bryant's first national championship team at Alabama in 1961 and was a successful Southeastern Conference head coach.
“I think what they've done is unprecedented,” Battle said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “I have admired what they've done from afar, and for the last few months, have admired what they do up front. Coach Saban has got a great program going. He is as focused and intense a guy as I've ever been around. Everything that they do, they peel back all the layers to get down to what needs to be done as well as anybody I've ever seen.
“The impact not just on the football program but on the athletic department in general has been felt. They have motivated all of us to do a better job in all areas, from academics to life skills to other sports.”
Saban has led the Tide to back-to-back national titles and three of the past four. Battle makes it clear he's not elevating Saban above his own revered former coach but taking into consideration the current climate where college football has become an “arms race” with huge salaries and facilities and TV contracts in the Southeastern Conference and elsewhere getting pricey upgrades.
Bryant led Alabama to 323 wins and six national championships. Saban's only halfway there on the title front, albeit in only six seasons, but his program hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.
“What coach Bryant did was unprecedented at the time, I think,” said Battle, who spent seven seasons as Tennessee's head coach in the 1970s. “This is a different time. I don't think that competition has ever been greater in the history of college football than it is today. I think from that reference, there are a lot of people that are putting a lot of money into football and all sports.
“That hasn't happened in the past as much as it has today.”
Battle has nearly three months on the job since replacing a former `Bama teammate, the late Mal Moore. His position seems a little like a president taking over during economic boom times, when the big question is how long he can keep the party going.
Besides football, Alabama has collected national championships in four other sports the past two academic years. A new $9 million athletic training facility stands near his corner office, and 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium has been expanded four times since 1988.
“Somebody told me yesterday, `It looks to me like they've put you in the Daytona 500 in the lead lap and told you to stay in front for 499 more laps,“’ Battle said. “Yeah, it's a good time to be at the university. Sometimes it's harder to stay on top than it is to get to the top. It's a great time to be here, with great people. I don't see our challenge as to maintain, I see our challenge as to move forward. That's what our plan is.”
A new baseball stadium and rowing facility are in the planning stages and Battle is hoping they'll be done in the next few years.
“We just need to keep on working hard because every day everybody else is coming after us,” Battle said.
Battle also discussed other issues facing the SEC and college athletics these days.
Saban was the only coach at the league's spring meetings voting for a nine-game SEC schedule, but Battle thinks that change is coming.
Battle and Saban also favor SEC teams joining the Big Ten in agreeing not to schedule future FCS opponents, which often means asking fans to come out for guaranteed mismatches.
“I think that the fans deserve better games and we need to pay attention to the fans,” Battle said. “The high-definition television is really good. There are some cool places to watch it from and see games up close and personal. It's a challenge to all of us in the sports business, particularly those with big stadiums, that we need to make the fan experience a whole lot better.”
Battle also has an interest in a suit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA seeking unspecified damages for the use of former players' likenesses in video games and other material.
Battle founded Collegiate Licensing Company in 1981, which he sold 26 years later. The company's Web site said its partners make up nearly 80 percent of the $4.6 billion retail market for collegiate licensed merchandise.
Battle said he believes athletes have been treated fairly and notes that the total cost of a year at Alabama is some $30,000 for an in-state student and perhaps double that for out-of-state students, while only two of 21 sports make money.
“We're for increasing dollars, if you will, to pay for the full academic experience but to pay players their worth, if that happens legally, it'll change the whole face of intercollegiate athletics, and I don't think it'll be better,” Battle said. “What courts decide, I don't know. But I think our system is really good.”