The 1970’s North American Soccer League (NASL) is famous for importing world-class players, who came from all over the world to cash in on the exciting new league’s money. International coaches guided most of these clubs. Some teams, looking to feature U.S. players, took a different approach and found college coaches to help build rosters. The San Antonio Thunder, midway through their first season, hired Don Batie to implement such a domestic-focused strategy. Batie took over a struggling team when hired and guided the club for the remainder of their time in San Antonio.
An Unusual Path to Soccer Coaching
Don Batie was born in 1942 in Artesia, New Mexico. His father sold his small grocery chain when Batie was in first grade and moved his family to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where Batie first encountered soccer.
“That’s where I got my soccer background because most of the kids in Pagosa Springs were Latino kids, and the only ball we had to play with was a soccer ball.” Batie continued, “I developed some basic elementary skills, learning playground soccer. We never had a team; we never had a coach. We just loved the game.”
He picked up other sports when he moved to another small town in Colorado and continued to play small-sided soccer games virtually every day in the large front yard at his house. When his family moved back to Alamogordo, New Mexico in 10th grade, Batie turned most of his attention to other sports since high schools did not play soccer in the 1950s. He excelled in football, receiving All-State honors (in two positions) in his senior year and an offer to play college football.
The Pole Vault was where Batie truly excelled. Despite not picking up the sport until 10th grade, he won the State Championship in this event in both his junior and senior year, breaking state records along the way. Pole Vaulting excellence also earned him a track and field scholarship at the University of New Mexico (UNM), and that is where he enrolled. Unfortunately, a knee injury ended his track and field career in his junior year. When he got hurt, his 15 1/4-foot school-record vault was not that far away from the World Record, which was 16 feet at the time. “I thought my life was over,” Batie told me in a recent interview. This life-changing moment turned out to be the beginning of his new career.
Don Batie Rediscovers His Love of Soccer
Despite the football and track and field schedule, Batie continued to play pickup soccer all through high school.
After his knee injury had healed, he could not spring and jump, but his speed remained. His first step back into soccer came when one of his fraternity brothers recruited him to play goalkeeper on the house intramural team. He soon moved out to the field to play forward, where he was spotted and recruited by the UNM club soccer team coach to join that team. The first time he had ever played on an organized squad in his life.
Since there was little organized soccer played in the Southwest, The UNM club team relied primarily internationals to fill out the roster. Batie specifically remembers three players from Ethiopia, two of whom played for their National youth teams, that played at a level of skill he had never seen. His school competed in the Rocky Mountain Conference, which consisted of a few NCAA teams, with the remainder being club teams from Mountain Time Zone. Batie remembers his time playing in college. “Kicking the ball around as a kid certainly did not make me a technical player. My former players would laugh at that. However, it did, most importantly, help me have a great love for the game. I played a little bit of club soccer in college only because of being in the right place at the right time and some God-given speed. Not soccer technique or skill.”
After graduation, he moved to Santa Fe to teach and coach soccer and track at the College of Santa Fe. During this time, he commuted to UNM to finish his Master’s in Education. After two years in Santa Fe, he saw a job posting on a bulletin board looking for an individual to teach and coach in a small Northern California community of roughly 15,000 residents. Thus, he and his young family ended up at Chico State University in 1967, where he was when Thunder owner Ward Lay found him in 1974.
A Successful College Coaching Career Creates Professional Opportunities
Before Batie arrived, the Chico State program had completed four unsuccessful seasons. In short order, he created a West Coast powerhouse, winning six consecutive Far Western Conference Championships. During this streak, the school made its first NCAA tournament appearances, including a third-place national finish in 1972.
Two years later, Batie served as an assistant coach on a Christian college All-Star team playing summer matches in Mexico and Central America. This team trained in the Rio Grande Valley at then Pan American University, attempting to replicate the weather conditions they would encounter. It was here where Ward Lay first contacted Batie when he was looking for his first coach for the expansion Thunder. After this initial conversation, Batie did not hear anything more for a few months until Lay called him to formally interview for the Thunder Head Coach role. He was a finalist for the job, but Lay hired experienced NASL coach Alex Perolli instead, who Batie admitted was more qualified to build the new team then. “With his international contacts, he was better qualified to recruit and start up a professional team from scratch than I was then.”
The First Professional Games were Like a Fantasy
While growing up, Don Batie had no exposure to professional soccer. He told me, in his mind, soccer existed only on the playgrounds in rural Colorado and New Mexico then. His first live professional soccer matches came when he attended the 1970 FIFA Mexico World Cup. Batie saw multiple games in Mexico City and surrounding cities, including the renowned final where Pele and the Brazil team that many consider to be the best in history won the Championship. He said the game that made the most significant impact on him was the semifinal between West Germany and Italy at Azteca in Mexico City. Italy won 4-3. Titled the Game of the Century, five of the seven goals came in extra-time. “That game was unbelievable. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after it ended,” Batie commented.
The Highlight of Don Batie’s Coaching Career Arrived at an Inopportune Moment
On a Friday afternoon, on June 6, 1975, Don Batie and his family were on their way for an overdue vacation to see the Oregon Coast. During the busy first eight-years of his time at Chico State, he had never taken an out-of- town break. Despite his wife telling him it would be a mistake, Batie stopped at his office on their way out of town around noon for a quick recruiting phone call. He heard his phone ringing as he neared the office. Batie told me that he had a feeling it would be Ward Lay calling because he had read about the latest in a string of losses the previous night. Batie recalled that Lay got straight to the point. ‘Don, do you want to come to the biggest valley of poop in Texas,” his way of extending a head coach job offer. Knowing how difficult it would be to find the three Chico State administrators needed to approve this decision on a Friday afternoon, Batie told Lay he would give him an answer on Monday. Lay was in a hurry, telling him, ‘I have a plane ticket for you in at 4:00 this afternoon. If you want the job be on that plane.’
A few hours later, Batie was packed and at the airport. He clearly remembers his wife and kids looking at him through on the other side of the small regional airport chain link fence. “My kids were hanging on the fence saying, Daddy, How come we are not going on vacation.” Batie flew to Dallas, met with Lay briefly, and went on to Denver to scout future opponents. The next night he was in San Antonio getting ready for Thunder practice the next day.
Some Disturbing Surprises Awaited
He spent the morning meeting with GM Mike Boyle and former coach Perolli and drove over to St. Anthony’s Seminary, where the Thunder trained. He has not such fond memories of what he found when he arrived. “The General Manager dropped me off at 5:30 without even so much as an introduction. A couple of hundred people were on the field intermingled with players; probably more people on the field then went to our games. Came to see the new coach, I guess.” Batie continued, “I couldn’t tell players from the others. There were no soccer balls except those that the patrons had. None of the players had any of the official practice gear that was issued to them. Some didn’t even have soccer cleats. They had dressed at home, and most of their gear was given or traded away.”
Fortunately, one of the Thunder players was a former Chico State player. Batie said he asked defender Mark Stahl to find a place to meet the team. He remembers Stahl saying, “We have an official locker room, but I have never been in it.”
When he arrived in the locker room, Batie described it as “Beyond description.” He said it was hot, there was no air conditioning or running water, it smelled, and there was a dead rat in the corner. He found out why the team had never been in it.
“Needless to say, the first meeting was interesting,” Batie said. He found that the diverse international roster Perolli had recruited spoke multiple languages, so he needed an interpreter. He first captained one of his NASL veterans to translate into Spanish, which seemed to be work for those who did not speak English but said found him too reserved. Batie said that Brazilian Renato Costa then stepped forward, politely asked the first interpreter to sit down, and said, ‘Coach from now on, I am your interpreter.’ Costa was loud, boisterous, pounded on the desk, and soon had everyone sitting on the edge of their seats. Batie remembers, “I would say something, and Renato would come back and say ‘I don’t like how Don said that, let me say it this way.” Based on his understanding of playground Spanish, Batie said he determined that Costa was reading the riot act to the team, with a fair number of profanities sprinkled into the translation.
A Stay in San Antonio Almost Ended Before it Began
Following the meeting, Batie immediately called Ward Lay and turned the tables on their recent conversation. I will let Don Batie explain what transpired. “Here is how the conversation went. “Ward, remember that 4:00 plane ticket you had for me? Well, I have scheduled a return ticket back to Chico. I’m going back.” ‘What do you mean you are going back?’ Lay responded. “I explained the entire practice situation to him and said, if you want me to stay, here is what it will take…forty new 32-panel Mitre soccer balls (the best balls on the market in those days), locker room cleaned out, air conditioning, showers that work, individual stalls for each player, new practice gear, and shoes (both practice and game), for every player, a lined field setup, and a restraining fence to separate spectators. And all this has to be done by 3:00 tomorrow, or I’m on that plane back to Chico.”
Batie continued, “Mr. Lay assured me that everything I asked for would be in place and on time, and Mr. Lay did his part. He immediately sent a construction crew, a field maintenance crew, and a sporting goods company to complete the locker room and field projects by 3:00 as demanded.”
He told me he moved the next practice to early the following morning to avoid the crowds. When that finished, he asked the team to reassemble in the locker room at 3 pm for their first official practice. Batie described what they found when they arrived. “At 3:00 pm, the players reported to the St Anthony’s locker room. You should have seen them, like kids in a candy store. Finally, they looked like and were treated like who they were. Professionals!” The Thunder went on to win five of their next six games.
First Game Success and Improvement Unfortunately Could Not Save the Team
The first match he coached was six days later at home against the rival Dallas Tornado. The Thunder won that match, but Batie remembers one funny story about game day. “We were the only team in the league that didn’t practice in their facility. Before the match, we had a team meeting in the team offices. The players left after the meeting, and I got in my car, and it only occurred to me when pulling out of the parking lot that I did not know where the stadium was.” Fortunately, he could get directions to North East Stadium at a nearby gas station and avoid a complicated issue.
Don Batie coached the San Antonio Thunder for the remainder of the 1975 season. The club made strides but could not recover from the 1-8 start before Batie arrived and did not qualify for the playoffs. Batie returned for the 1976 season but fell one goal short of qualifying for the playoffs that season. He went back to Chico to resume coaching the college schedule but fully expected to return to San Antonio for the 1977 season. In an interview earlier this year, Batie shared his intention to set up a reserve team composed of local soccer talent. He also mentioned his desire to have Bobby Moore return as a player/assistant coach. None of these plans materialized as owner Ward Lay decided to relocate the franchise to Hawaii.
Don Batie had a couple more encounters with professional sports. He served part-time for two summers as the West Coast Advanced Scout for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, then coached by Dallas Legend Gordon Jago. The new owners of the expansion Philadelphia Fury also discussed a possible head coaching role before the 1978 season. Batie, recognizing the impact of a vagabond life on his young family, passed on this opportunity and remained at Chico State for the remainder of his career.
Don Batie-An Extraordinary College Coaching Career
Batie spent 28 years as Head Coach of Chico State. His teams won 14 Conference Championships, had 10 NCAA Appearances, won 5 NCAA Regional Championships, and were in the Final Four three times, taking third in the nation each time. He was also named Head Coach of the West Team in the College Soccer Senior Bowl (1976). At the time of his retirement, Don Batie was ranked Number 5 in All-Time Winning Percentage for Collegiate Coaches in all three NCAA Divisions. He is currently ranked in the top 10 in wins (326) for Division II College soccer Coaches.
Possibly the most remarkable aspect of his time as a college coach was that Chico State did not offer athletic scholarships during the entirety of his career. Now an NCAA Division II program, the sport was organized as a single national grouping when Batie first started coaching. Chico played against top schools up and down the West Coast, now part of NCAA DI, including UCLA, UC Berkeley, and San Jose State in the 1970s and 1980s. Batie’s programs sent several players to the NASL over the years. Known across the nation for their standards, how close the teams were, and how hard they were to play, Chico State left their mark in the NCAA soccer community.
Batie stepped away from his coaching responsibilities after the 1995 season and served as Athletic Director at Chico State for seven years. After retirement from this job, Batie taught various Physical Education Department classes until 2007, when he finally retired.
Retirement Brought Recognition for a Successful Journey
After his retirement, recognition for his long, successful career awaited. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America awarded him a “Letter of Commendation” proclaiming his exceptional service to soccer. Induction into the California State Chico Athletic , Chico Sports , and Northern California Athletics Hall’s of Fame. were the capstone of his career.
Seventy-eight years old, he still lives in Chico with his wife, Merle, in the same house they bought in 1976 when they returned from San Antonio. His three children and ten grandchildren keep him busy. Batie helped coach his grandson’s youth soccer team for five years after he retired and, in a non-pandemic world, still can be found in the stands watching as many Chico State soccer games as possible. The time spent with his grandson as a volunteer closed the loop on his long term commitment to youth soccer. He was instrumental in the establishment of thriving youth soccer organizations in both Chico and San Antonio.
Reflecting on his time coaching at Chico and San Antonio, Batie is thankful for the opportunity to work with both hundreds of young players.
“I was blessed to work with hundreds of student-athletes, playing competitively and winning a few championships, but mainly teaching young men what it takes and how to be winners in life. Now they are at the peak of their careers and highly successful. You name it, and they’re doing it, and very well.”
He also remembers the opportunity to coach professionally in San Antonio and work with players like Bobby Moore. In this Texas Soccer Journal series, the work we have done bringing the Thunder back to life 45 years after they began play has provided him with a chance to close the book on the abrupt ending to his time in San Antonio. “The real highlight of my career was the San Antonio experience. That is where I had the chance to see the bright lights and see the world of soccer a little bigger than just at the college level. I had the chance to coach world-recognized players like Bobby Moore, who taught me so much.”
Fate delivers an ironic twist at times. From his early beginnings playing pickup soccer on his front lawn in rural Colorado, Batie pivoted to rediscover his love for soccer after his “end of world” injury. San Antonio, Chico, and the NASL are fortunate that, out of the ashes of his life-changing experience, Don Batie could instead reignite a lifelong soccer journey that lasted more than 40 years.
All Images courtesy of Don Batie