Mike Battles’ love for football hasn’t diminished one bit over the last four decades.
The legendary coach, who has headed programs in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, has coached thousands of players since taking his first head coaching job at Irwin County (Ga.) in 1975.
Battles, 66, is entering his 11th season at Handley this fall and is just as driven as he was when he started his career 44 years ago.
“How good can it be that you get to do something that you love everyday and you get paid for it?” Battles said. “I like Friday nights, I like practices, I like watching kids grow up playing it, I like seeing what it does to them, everything. There are absolutely no minuses with being out here around football.
“Football is the greatest game and greatest thing we have going for us right now.”
One of Battles’ biggest loves for the game, and also in his legacy, has been the encouragement he’s provided for his players.
Although Battles has coached a large number of great players that have gone on to great careers, he said every kid is equal on the field when it comes to maturing and receiving guidance.
“Kids are looking for a way to go and you can provide it,” he said. “All of our kids that come through here really do a good job, stay out there and work hard.”
The honesty and straightforwardness that Battles brings to coaching is one thing that keeps his legacy alive and well in a game that’s changed so much with technology.
Even with film and scouting reports being available on the Internet, Battles hasn’t wrestled with learning how to use the new assets that a lot of coaches rely on.
And it hasn’t held back the Alabama High School Athletic Association Class of 2014 Coaches Hall of Fame inductee.
Battles’ overall record sits at 277-161-2, while he’s 206-113-1 in his 29 years as a head coach in Alabama. He has led Handley to the playoffs the last nine seasons, including the Tigers winning the Class 3A state championship in 2011. He’s also coached great teams at Wellborn, Hueytown and Pell City.
Battles’ success isn’t bad, especially for a traditional-style coach that never learned how to send an email.
“A lot of things have changed,” Battles said, “but the three things that have always been the same are block, tackle and execute.”
Mike Battles Jr. grew up on the football field.
From the time he would walk, he was on the field. Mike Jr., as a manager, mowed the field and then eventually played for his father at Wellborn. Following graduation in 1990, Mike Jr. went on to play football at Samford.
The Battles’ middle son, Bart, 38, played for Mike Battles at Hueytown and later played for UAB. Mike Jr., 43, went into coaching, and will enter his third year heading Tallassee in the fall, having also been head coach at Oak Grove and Bibb County in the past.
The point is, the Battles family is a football family.
“We’re a football family, and we have been forever,” Battles said. “My wife, Caroline … I hit the lottery in 1970, because she’s a great football wife.”
But, it’s the youngest Battles son, Andy, 33, that carries the biggest role in the family.
Andy, who is autistic, didn’t go off to play college football and still lives at home with Battles and Caroline. Battles said he’s the “anchor” and “the tough one in the family.”
“When my youngest son’s life is good, Caroline and my lives are great,” Battles said. “When he’s having a hard time, my whole family is having a hard time. That’s the way things are.”
Leaving a legacy
Jeff Smith said he’ll always be indebted to Mike Battles.
There are thousands of examples of Battles influencing high school players that strive for greatness and Smith is a perfect one to look to.
What began as a four-year playing career for Smith at Wellborn turned into playing at Jacksonville State and then becoming an assistant coach under Battles from 1993-96.
“The impact he had on me while I was playing football here at Wellborn is why I wanted to get into coaching,” Smith, the Panthers’ current coach, said. “Bottom line, that was it. Coach Battles made that big of an impact on me.”
It’s a fairly common story.
Mike Jr., played for his father in high school and then joined the coaching ranks right out of college. The same can be said for Cherokee County head coach Tripp Curry.
Mike Jr. said one of the biggest influences his father provides is simply doing the right thing. He said Battles has “never asked a kid to do something he wouldn’t do,” and added memories of riding around town with Battles as he picked up and dropped off players that needed rides to practice.
“It’s just about how he treats people,” Mike Jr. said. “Regardless of if he’s getting on your rear end or encouraging you, he’s doing what he knows is best for you. There’s a difference between encouraging and criticizing, so I try to do the best I can to model him, but I have to do my own thing sometimes, too.
“The kids I played with, and the ones before and after me, know he teaches life lessons to you.”
Salute your shorts
Mike Battles hasn’t changed in a lot of ways over the past four decades.
He’s been influential, helped a lot of teenage kids become men and won a lot of football games. And he’s done it all while wearing short pants.
One of the first things someone will learn when entering Wright Stadium in Roanoke, or even just discussing Handley football, is the legendary coach will be wearing shorts whether it’s late August or early December.
“I just enjoy wearing shorts. People ask if I get cold, but I have only about 14 more inches exposed than anyone wearing long pants. Think about that,” Battles said. “I don’t think about it, I’m thinking about my job. It doesn’t get any colder than it does when you’re deer hunting, and I love deer hunting.
“I don’t get cold, and once I do, I think it’s about time for me to throw away my whistle.”
While Battles’ shorts collection is always a go-to, Smith vividly recalls one time that the cold was too much for his former coach.
“When I got through playing at Jacksonville State, I was able to coach for him. We went up there the first year at Hueytown and we were playing Walker,” Smith said. “We had a terrible team and Walker had a terrible team. We were playing in Jasper and it was freezing cold.”
Smith recalled that coaching under Battles didn’t come with much of a wardrobe, saying assistant coaches were provided only a shirt and shoes. It was known that all coaches wore shorts.
“We got up there and had on shorts and jackets and it’s freezing,” Smith continued. “We came back in from warming the kids up and coach Battles had a bag in the locker room that he started digging through and he pulled out some black wind pants and put them on.
‘I said, ‘Coach, what are you doing?’ I was shocked, because as a coach and player I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen him wear long pants. That sucker said, ‘We’re not going to do all that stuff we did at Wellborn up here. It’s cold.’ He had on the wind pants and the rest of us had on shorts the rest of the game.”
Battles has talked to former coaches about retirement, but he hasn’t talked about his own retirement.
Despite being 44 years deep in a stellar career, Battles hasn’t even thought about when he wants to hang up his whistle.
“I just come to work,” he said, “and one day I won’t anymore.”
After Handley won the Class 3A state championship in 2011, Battles, who was 63 at the time, said he planned on coaching until he is 70.
But, at that time, what he didn’t mention specifically was if he planned on retiring at 70.
“I’m going to coach until someone tells me that it’s time to call it a day. I say 70, but I feel good, I’m not under any stress and we still work hard. I don’t mind coming out here,” Battles said. “I’m going to do it if I feel like it at 70, but I’m going to quit when I can’t do my job. I don’t want to drag it on, but it’s going to be when I feel I can’t do my job, not when someone else thinks I can’t do my job.”
Battles has done nothing short of his job, especially in the last decade. He has led Handley to three region titles and also the state championship in the last decade.
And although Battles doesn’t have a plan of when to call it quits, he has an indirect idea of how to decide when it’s time.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to and all the coaches that have retired that I’ve talked to say when the time comes you’ll know,” Battles said.
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.