A lasting legacy
When radio personality Paul Finebaum introduced Mal Moore to a group of Alabama fans back in January, he said that Moore will forever be remembered as the man who hired football coach Nick Saban.
As legacies go, that’s not a bad one. Whenever he heard it, which was fairly often the last few years, Moore would grin from ear and ear.
|Moore worked as Alabama's athletic director from 1999 until his death in March of this year.
Moore would be the first one to say, “Aw, hell, I’m not an administrator. I’m just an old football coach.” But in 14 years as Alabama’s athletic director, Moore established one of the nation’s best all-around athletic departments, capped off by four national championships in his last year on the job.
“Mal was the quintessential Southern gentleman,” said Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama system. “He was the face of athletics, and as a visionary, he was unmatched. He was the guy years ago who looked over the horizon and saw what was possible for Alabama at a time when things weren’t going very well.”
Moore, 73, died on March 30 from a pulmonary condition. The night before, in a Duke University hospital room, his daughter told Moore that he was a finalist for SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily’s Athletic Director of the Year award. He smiled just for a moment.
His hardened lungs failed the next day, and Moore died before a lung transplant was possible. He was named Athletic Director of the Year on May 22 at the Sports Business Awards.
It’s been nearly 2 1/2 months since Moore died, and his family and friends are still deeply grieving.
“It’s still a shock, the way everything happened so fast,” his daughter, Heather Cook, said. “I still can’t believe it. I wasn’t ready for him to go. He wasn’t ready to go, either.”
As his health rapidly deteriorated, Moore in his final days told his daughter: “I’d just like a few years to walk around and whistle.”
Getting the Tide rolling again
The six men — Moore and five extremely well-heeled Alabama boosters — gathered in what was left of Bryant Hall. The year was 2002 and Bryant Hall, the old athletic dorm that used to house so many Alabama football legends, had not been in use for 15 years.
In many ways, Bryant Hall was symbolic for what had happened to Crimson Tide athletics. It was once a shrine to the greatness forged by Bear Bryant, Moore’s old football coach, but over the years fell into disrepair.
Like Bryant Hall, Alabama athletics were struggling, too. The football program was starting a five-year probation term
|Moore holds a news conference in 2007 to introduce Nick Saban as Alabama’s head football coach.
As Moore and the boosters sat in a semi-circle inside the weathered and mildewed Bryant Hall, it began to rain. Water seeped through the ceiling and dripped on the heads of the boosters. Moore was powerful, but even he couldn’t have predicted such a perfect scenario in which to ask for their help.
It was under those conditions that Moore announced to the high-ranking friends of Alabama athletics that he was starting a fundraising campaign to raise $50 million. He asked them to be the founding members of what he would call the Crimson Tradition committee if they would give $500,000 apiece to go toward improving facilities. All they had to do was look around to see how badly Alabama athletics needed an update.
Each one of them, including Paul Bryant Jr., son of the Bear, committed on the spot.
“If he wanted to get their attention, that was a great way to do it,” said Ronny Robertson, Alabama’s senior associate AD for development. “The funny thing is that Mal would be the first one to say that he didn’t know a thing about fundraising. But you know what, on his first visit to go see an alumnus, he got a gift for $250,000. It blew his mind. He went to 32 people before anybody ever turned him down.”
That meeting with five donors in dilapidated Bryant Hall was the start of Alabama’s first capital campaign in 2002. Moore set a goal of raising $50 million and he was going to borrow $50 million more, giving him $100 million to go to work on Alabama’s facilities.
Andrew Sorensen, Alabama’s president at the time, told Moore not to do it. Football was in bad shape, the program was on probation, and the climate simply wasn’t favorable to ask for money. Moore was told that the boosters didn’t want to hear from the athletic department at the time.
“But Mal wasn’t about struggling and he wasn’t about compromising,” Witt said. “When Mal went to work, it was something to watch.”
“He went to President Sorensen and said, ‘Give me a chance to raise the money. I can do it,’” Cook said. “He wanted the table set for Alabama once football came off probation [in 2007]. He said that when that day comes, it’ll be like horses running out of the stable. Nothing will stop us.”
From backup QB to calling the plays
During those five years from 2002 to 2007, when Alabama was both on probation and running a capital campaign, Moore exceeded his goal and raised $70 million. That, with the $50 million that was borrowed, gave him $120 million to breathe new energy into the Tide’s tired, old facilities.
|Moore's passion for Alabama led him to stay at the school even though he would only be in a backup role on the football team. Moore (left, No. 15) is shown with fellow quarterbacks Jack Hurlbut and Pat Trammell, as well as legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Moore would later coach at Alabama, where (below) he stands opposite Bryant to map out strategy with the coaching staff.
He grew up in tiny Dozier, Ala., a town of fewer than 500 people south of Montgomery. Until he was 9, Moore lived on a farm with his parents and six brothers and sisters.
His parents were both sports fans and, in fact, his mother named him Mal after a player on the Blue roster from the annual Blue-Gray all-star football game in Montgomery. He was the only son without a family first name.
Moore, like his older brothers, worked in the family’s sawmill business as he grew up. The cross-ties they cut were shipped to Europe after World War II so that rail companies could begin rebuilding. Mal usually worked on a two-man crew that cut the timber with a cross-cut saw.
He was a standout athlete at Dozier High, which wasn’t saying a whole lot for a school with 20 boys in the graduating class. But Mal was good enough at quarterback to earn a look from Bear Bryant.
After a season with the Tide, it became apparent that Pat Trammell was going to beat out Moore for the starting quarterback job. Bryant called Moore into his office and said that he’d help him transfer to another school where he could get more playing time. But Moore shocked the old coach by deciding to stay and be a backup because Alabama was where he wanted to go to school.
“You’ll never find anyone who loved the University of Alabama more than Mal,” said his older brother, Frank Moore, and any number of his friends for that matter. “He ended up backing up two All-Americans, Pat Trammell and Joe Namath. That’s not too bad.”
After deciding to get into coaching after college, Moore made his way back to Alabama as Bryant’s offensive coordinator in the 1970s, and later as an assistant under Gene Stallings in the 1990s.
In 1994, with his wife, Charlotte, ailing from the early onset of Alzheimer’s in her early 50s, Moore sought a job in Alabama’s athletic department so he could spend more time with her. He first took a job as an associate athletic director, eventually working his way to AD in 1999.
“My mother had begun to regress pretty fast and Daddy left coaching so he could be at home more,” Cook said. “All he ever wanted was to be the head coach at Alabama, but what he did for my mother — getting out of coaching — shows his true character. He walked away from the only career he’d ever known at age 52.”
Moore joked with his staff that he didn’t know the first thing about fundraising, which is one of an AD’s most important duties.
During one dinner at an influential doctor’s home in Georgia, the host implored Moore to try some of the caviar he had bought just for that occasion.
“I bought that for you, Mal, you’ve got to try some,” the doctor said over and over.
Finally, Moore took the serving knife, put a heap of caviar on it, and put it in his mouth, licking every last bite off the knife.
“The doctor, laughing, came over and said, ‘Mal, you’re supposed to put it on a cracker.’”
A link to the Bear
There was something about Moore’s down home charm that made him a perfect fit at Alabama. For one, he was one of the few lasting connections to the days of Bear Bryant, and Alabama fans reveled in hearing stories about the Bear. The legendary coach could be as tough as they came, but he always had a soft spot for Moore.
As Bryant lay dying, some of his final words to his son, Paul Jr., were, “Take care of Alabama football, and take care of Mal.”
Telling those old Alabama football stories was part of Moore’s charm.
“He had this really sincere nature,” said James “Goat” Hollis, a banker in Brantley, Ala., who was a childhood friend of
|Moore (left) was an avid hunter. Here he poses with Bill Battle, who would later follow him as AD, and Alex Jones, an Alabama alum and owner of the Cadwallader Place hunting camp.
During an afternoon game at Ole Miss, Bryant kept urging Moore, the offensive coordinator, to attempt a pass, despite bad field position. Moore resisted and resisted, until Bryant finally barked, “Mal, throw the damn ball. It’s going to be dark soon.”
During another game, Bryant was calling for a reverse, but Moore didn’t like the situation. Finally, as the Tide moved into better field position, Moore called the reverse and the Alabama ball carrier was dropped for a big loss.
“Mal, dammit, I meant run it the other way,” Bryant yelled.
In 1970, as the Tide changed its offense to the wishbone, Bryant announced at a staff meeting that the team would sink or swim with this new formation. As Moore walked the halls of the football office in subsequent days, other assistant coaches would make “gurgling” sounds as they walked by.
Such stories served Moore and the athletic department well. During his tenure as AD from 1999-2013, Moore raised close to $160 million in donations to the athletic department, the school said, and borrowed about $90 million more, to make $250 million in facility improvements. Bryant Hall, the setting for that initial fundraising meeting with the leaky ceiling, received a transformation into an academic center. The baseball stadium and the swimming complex were the only ones that didn’t undergo a full renovation during Moore’s run, and both are at the top of the priority list.
“When you think of all the things accomplished during that time — the football stadium, weight room, all the facilities — that’s Mal,” said Angus Cooper, a quail-hunting buddy from Mobile who served on Alabama’s board for 15 years. “He had the vision for where he wanted to go, and the truth is that, without those facilities he built, we never would have gotten Nick Saban. Nothing meant more to Mal than making the University of Alabama the best it could be.”
A few years ago, the main athletic office was renamed the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility.
“When the board decided to name the building after Mal, he cried,” Cooper said. “It meant the world to him.”
“It’s been a few months now since Daddy passed, and people are still going to see the gravesite,” Cook said. “That’s the kind of impact he had on people.”
Despite all of Moore’s accomplishments through 50 years at Alabama, his daughter remembers the little things he did for people.
Moore always walked around with a few extra football tickets in his pocket, looking to give them to a father and his son. He cherished their reaction when he gave them the tickets and said, “Go enjoy the game.”
He also staunchly protected “A Day,” Alabama’s spring football game, by pledging to never charge admission. That was a day when those who couldn’t afford tickets could go watch the Crimson Tide, he would say.
Then there was the time a freshman student at Alabama, who grew up near Moore’s hometown of Dozier, was so homesick that she thought about leaving school and going back home.
Through some friends back home, Moore learned about the girl and offered her a part-time job in the athletics office. Each day he walked past her desk, Moore would smile and say, “Give me a hug.” That personal touch helped the girl make it through her freshman year and eventually graduate.
Moore knew just how she felt. He went through many of the same pains as a young freshman playing for Bear Bryant.
“Back then, there was something like 85 people that signed in Coach Bryant’s first class, and only about 15 or so survived,” said Frank Moore, Mal’s brother. “Mal tried to come home two or three times. He called Daddy and said he was ready to throw in the towel. But all he’d hear on the other end of the line was breathing.”
The point is that Mal Moore never forgot where he came from, or what it was like to be a homesick kid in a new place.
It was around the time of the BCS championship game in early January that his friends noticed that Moore was slowing down and breathing heavily.
Cooper chided Moore for riding around Alabama’s football practice in a golf cart, something he didn’t normally do. “I told him, ‘You must be getting old,’” Cooper said. “I know there was one time back in the fall we were supposed to go hunting and he didn’t want to go because he felt bad. I heard him coughing a lot, but none of us knew how serious it was.
“What will always stand out to me is that after Alabama won the national championship, he went back to his hotel room. That just wasn’t like him.”
Slowing down just wasn’t in Moore, until his health declined earlier this year. He and Frank had talked often about retirement, but spending all of his time playing golf and hunting, as much as he loved it, just wasn’t what Mal wanted to do full time.
“What most people don’t know is that Mal had some tests for pulmonary problems three years ago,” Frank Moore said. “At that time, the doctor told Mal that he’d need a lung transplant in three to 10 years. Mal was focused on the 10, not the three. But, hell, Alabama was all that Mal had ever done.”
By the time Moore was admitted to the Duke University hospital in mid-March, he was in dire need of the lung transplant. He lasted only a few weeks before his lungs gave out.
“We weren’t ready for this,” said Frank Moore, 79. “We weren’t ready to give him up. I was expecting him to bury me, not the other way around. … I’m so proud of him. He was a hell of a man.”
Last week, Alabama’s men’s golf team closed out Illinois to win the NCAA championship, something it missed by just a shot last year. Moore’s daughter couldn’t help but think about how disappointed he was last year when the team came up just short, and how happy he would have been with this title.
“My father would have been on top of the world today,” Heather Cook wrote in a text message shortly after the Crimson Tide’s golf championship. “If bragging is allowed in heaven, Daddy’s doing it with a grin from ear to ear. Roll Tide!”
Memories of Mal
“He will go down in the annals of the University of Alabama football program as truly one of the seminal figures that’s ever been. You hear this line sometimes and it’s perceived as a cliché — but if there was a Mount Rushmore for Alabama football, I really think Coach Moore would be right next to Coach Bryant. I think he was that important.”
— Paul Finebaum, ESPN radio personality and longtime Birmingham radio host
“Mal was on a hunting trip with a couple of trustees when I called him once. He looked at his phone and saw that it was me, so he told everybody to be quiet while he took the call. As soon as we connected, one of the trustees started firing shots in the background. Mal accused the guy of trying to get him fired.”
— Robert Witt, chancellor, University of Alabama system
“Mal played behind Pat Trammell and Joe Namath, two of the all-time great quarterbacks at Alabama. He was often asked, ‘Mal, why don’t you just go to school’ and he’d say no sir, he’s going to stick it out. Well, he stuck it out for 50 years.”
— Alabama AD Bill Battle
“Every Saturday, Mal’s dad would listen to the Alabama game on the radio and, of course, Mal would never play a down. But his dad would meet up with his buddies in Dozier and say, ‘Mal and them won another one.’”
— Longtime friend James “Goat” Hollis, a banker in Brantley, Ala.
“Mal’s legacy at Alabama is both a physical legacy and an emotional legacy. Physical is what he did for the facilities here. Emotional was just the foresight and the passion Mal had for the university.”
— Ronny Robertson, Alabama’s senior associate AD for development and a former player under Bear Bryant
“Mal always had an open-door policy and one of the things that really impressed me is that he always had time for you. It didn’t matter if you were the No. 2 person in the department or last on the totem pole, he would make time for you.”
— Shane Lyons, Alabama’s deputy AD
“Coach Moore shepherded Alabama football through some dark days. He always took the approach that he was the caretaker of the program.”
— Phil Savage, color commentator for Alabama radio broadcasts and president of the Senior Bowl
“Football was his heart, but he worried about how we were going to get baseball better and how the other sports were doing. It was a real point of pride that Alabama ranked second in the SEC in graduation behind Vanderbilt. That was important to him.”
— Angus Cooper, former Alabama trustee and one of Moore’s longtime friends