Our guest on this week’s Next Take Georgia podcast was Muscogee County director of athletics Jeff Battles. He’s from the area, having graduated from Harris County High School before attending Columbus State University. Battles talked about the massive responsibility his job encompasses, with the many sports, schools, coaches, and student-athletes under his watch.
Battles oversees all athletic functions for the nine high schools and 12 middle schools in the Muscogee County School District. That includes approximately 200 coaches, 3,000 high school student-athletes, and 2,000 middle school student-athletes. Battles said he is trying to expand his role to create more engagement at the elementary school level.
“These last few years, we have reached out to our elementary schools to do some good things with the elementary-age students,” said Battles, who is in his seventh year as director of athletics for Muscogee County. “We have started an elementary school basketball league, where our elementary schools play each other, and we have started a running club.”
Battles said the running club is a six-week program that culminates with a big race among all participants, and it has been a big success so far with the kids.
“We started out with about 110 kids, and now we are at 290 kids,” he said. “It’s really growing, and that’s a great thing.”
Battles said he knows what each of those coaches are going through, because he has lived it. He believes that experience gives him an advantage in dealing with coaches on a day-to-day basis.
“When you’ve coached at the different levels like I have, that allows me to relate to the coaches about what they’re going through, and when they start talking about their different challenges and hurdles they face every day, I can talk them through it, because I’ve been there,” he said.
Battles began his coaching career in 1999, following his final year of college, and his experience includes many different levels and types of sports.
“I was fortunate to join on with a local high school football team during my last year of college, and then I was lucky enough to actually get a job in coaching the very next year, after I graduated,” Battles said on the podcast. “Since then, I’ve coached football, and wrestling would probably be my second sport.”
Battles was able to become involved with several other sports during his time in coaching.
“I was also able to dabble in several other sports, including middle school girls basketball, golf, track, and then during the summer, I was able to help out, just filling in for coaches in sports like baseball and then boys basketball,” he said. “That allowed me to keep growing up through the ranks with getting a lot of experience within different sports, and luckily all those experiences in those different sports has helped lead me to where I am today.”
Another positive for Battles was the fact that his coaching experience came in the Columbus area. He started at St. Anne-Pacelli before transitioning to Hardaway High School, where he became the head football coach, wrestling coach, and athletic director.
Battles stressed the fact that in the scope of overseeing athletics, education will always be the driving force.
“We are education-based athletics,” he said. “We are pushing kids to get ready for the next step, whatever that may be. Our middle school coaches are preparing our kids to get ready to move to high school, and our high school coaches are preparing our kids to move to the post-high school level, whether that’s college or whatever their next step may be.”
Battles talked about the top challenges he and his coaches are facing. It involves a very familiar theme that he and pretty much all other athletic directors are facing across the state.
“It used to be where you would marvel at the facilities that colleges were building, and now that’s reached us here at the high school level,” he said. “Facilities are a big challenge to try to keep up with other schools. That’s just a challenge we have in our foreseeable future.”
Another challenge Battles mentioned was retention of coaches.
“It’s getting harder to find and hire new coaches and teachers,” he said. “It’s tough to keep in the coaching profession. Coaches are getting out to do other things, and that’s one of our biggest challenges.
“I don’t think these challenges are limited to us here in Muscogee County,” Battles added. “I think that’s everywhere. Everybody wants to win.”