Bill Battle has the virus

Marvin Westwestwords

This is a health and welfare report.

Former Tennessee football coach Bill Battle is hospitalized in Birmingham with COVID-19, he said in a statement released Friday.

Battle, 78, remains optimistic.

Bill Battle

“I appreciate the prayers and well-wishes from so many, and want to let you know that I’m stable and resting comfortably,” Battle said. “I’ve got great doctors and nurses at UAB looking after me and expect to make a full recovery. Time and patience are important in the meantime.”

Battle played end on Paul Bryant’s first national championship team at Alabama in 1961. At age 24, he joined Doug Dickey’s staff at Tennessee. At 28, he became the youngest head coach in major college football.

His record with the Volunteers was 59-22-2 and included five consecutive bowl appearances and three teams ranked in the top 10. A decline in recruiting and performance cost him that job in 1976.

Battle became a super-successful businessman. He created and directed Collegiate Licensing Company for 25 years. It was No. 1 in the merchandizing field and represented more than 200 schools.

Battle eventually sold the company to IMG. In 2013, he began his third career as athletics director at Alabama. He endured a fight with multiple myeloma, stepped down as AD in 2017 but remains a special assistant to school president Stuart R. Bell.

The former coach stayed in touch with several old Vols. He attended UT reunions and helped former players when they needed help. Walter Chadwick was among the beneficiaries.

Battle still has his quiet sense of humor. Not long ago, he laughed again about the famous letter from former receiver Johnny Mills.

When Battle was coaching Tennessee ends, Mills was his pride and joy. The coach conceded that Johnny was slow but said he was nimble and fearless – as was the custom for country boys from suburban Elizabethton.

Mills caught 11 passes against Auburn, 10 against UCLA and tore up Kentucky with 225 receiving yards. He became the talk of several towns.

As head coach, Battle viewed Larry Seivers as what he was, an all-American, “best we’ve ever had at Tennessee.”

From far out in the wilderness came a lone dissenting voice – in a letter to Battle. It may well have arrived postage due. As the writer remembers, the message went something like this:

“I know how quickly fans forget but I never thought you would forget the man that helped you get where you are today. I believe you know that if it wasn’t for me, you would still be an assistant coach driving a ’65 Chevy and taking food from the training table home to your family.

“If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be any carpet in the dorm and only one side of the stadium would be two stories high.

“Larry Seivers better than Johnny Mills? I mean really, Coach, what are you saying? I hope you see the error of your ways.”

The writer promised to keep an eye out for a retraction. He added a poorly veiled threat. Such talk from the head coach could cause fans, especially old friends in his hometown of Elizabethton, to stop buying season tickets. The writer said since Elizabethton was so much larger than Clinton, Seivers’ hometown, it just made economic sense for the coach to clarify his remarks.

“It should be clear who you should be trying to please.”

This delightful reprimand was written on a “Hope You Get Well Soon” card.

Battle still remembers laughing out loud long before he got to the signature, Johnny B. Mills, all-Southeastern Conference split end, 1966.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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