Even as a young coach who had spent just six years in the profession as an assistant, Bill Battle understood the demands of the job-especially at a storied program in the SEC.
After playing three seasons as a defensive end at Alabama under Bear Bryant, Battle got his start in coaching at Army in 1964. Two seasons later, the Birmingham native again found himself in the South-this time at one of his alma mater’s biggest rivals in the University of Tennessee.
Just three years in as a defensive end coach under Doug Dickey, Battle was elevated to head coach at the age of 28 following Dickey’s exit to Gainesville where he had taken the Florida job in 1970. Not only did he face the daunting task of taking over a program like Tennessee at such a young age, he was replacing a head coach who had won two SEC titles and a national championship during his 6-year run at Tennessee.
“Certainly I was aware of the magnitude of the job,” Battle said. “But, I believed I was going to be a head coach at a major college somewhere, sometime, and this came a little quicker than I anticipated.”
Replacing a successful head coach like Dickey was one thing. There was already a standard that was set in place by General Neyland’s teams-long before Dickey or Battle arrived-and the program already expected to compete for and win national championships. That expectation was one that the young Battle embraced quickly.
“It was a huge honor,” Battle said. “I knew Tennessee had a great fan base and a great football tradition. I believed that I could carry on the tradition that Doug Dickey and our staff had started there during his tenure.”
Carrying on with what Dickey had accomplished during his time on the Hill was exactly what Battle did in his first season, leading the Vols to an 11-1 campaign that was capped off by a Sugar Bowl win over Air Force. During his first five seasons, Battle coached Tennessee to a 46-12-2 mark, four top 20 finishes and a 4-1 record in bowl games. Other highlights included the recruitment of Condredge Holloway, who would go on to become the first African-American quarterback to start in the SEC as well as a prolific career for the Volunteers.
Much like Battle, there is another young coach who spent his playing days in Tuscaloosa and is also cutting his teeth in the head coaching game at Tennessee and that is Jeremy Pruitt.
Battle can see the similarities in himself and Pruitt at this point in their careers, and while he hasn’t gotten the chance to offer the former Alabama defensive back any advice on taking on his first job at major SEC program, he believes that Pruitt is fully aware of the same expectations that he had himself nearly 50 years ago.
“(Pruitt) got the job during preparation for the national championship,” Battle said. “I congratulated him and wished him well. I invited him to stop by and visit if he had time. He didn’t have time, but I couldn’t have told him anything he didn’t already know. I knew Jeremy would be a Power Five head coach very soon and I was not surprised when Tennessee called.”
Another aspect the two coaches have in common are having mentors who are arguably the greatest to ever coach the game in Bryant and Nick Saban. Despite Battle and his former head coach never discussing the Tennessee job, the advice he gave is something that stuck with him through out his career as a player, coach and most recently, and athletic director.
“Coach Bryant was a great mentor for me in so many ways,” Battle said. “We actually didn’t talk about this one. But, there are not many days that pass that I don’t think of Coach Bryant and that has been the case for many years. His words of wisdom have been ingrained in me ever since I left Alabama in 1963.”
While it’s not known what advice Saban gave to Pruitt before embarking on his first head coaching gig, you can bet he learned a lot from him in the eight seasons he spent on his staff. Both Battle and Pruitt are no strangers to that championship pedigree. Battle was part of two national title-winning teams both as a player (Alabama, 1961) and a coach (Tennessee, 1967). Likewise, Pruitt has been a part of four as an assistant coach.
As someone who has been each position and has excelled at both, Battle believes the tandem of first-year athletic director Phillip Fulmer-a former player during his stint at Tennessee-and Jeremy Pruitt will be very successful.
“I believe (Pruitt) will be very successful at Tennessee,” Battle said. “He and the University are fortunate to have Phillip Fulmer as AD. Phillip was a co-captain on our 1971 team and a great leader.
“He was an outstanding coach, and will be an outstanding AD. Tennessee couldn’t have found a better one at this point in their history.”
While a Sugar Bowl berth in year one may be out of the realm of possibility for a Tennessee team coming off of an historically bad 4-8 season, Battle’s blueprint for success in this league is something that Pruitt is laying the foundation for early, and if sustained, can lead to a bright future for the program.
”What it took then and what it takes today is a program devoted to recruiting and developing players,” Battle said. “There are many intangibles that go into and affect the outcome of those two areas.”
Ahead of his first season at the helm, Pruitt’s inaugural class currently ranks No. 17 according to the 247 Sports composite rankings. Of course it will take more than just recruiting to emerge among the elite in the gauntlet that is the SEC. He will look to match Battle’s early success in year one when Tennessee faces West Virginia in Charlotte September 1.