By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Sarah Patterson didn’t know it, but she was in a no-win situation.
Given the success Patterson has had as Alabama’s head gymnastics coach over a career that has touched five decades, it seems hard to fathom that she would ever be in a position where winning wouldn’t be a given.
Rewind to 1978 when the then-Sarah Campbell had just completed her undergraduate degree at Slippery Rock State College and was pursuing a job opening as an assistant coach to Tom Steele with the Crimson Tide gymnastics program.
“I had applied for the assistant position, but received a phone call and letter subsequent to that asking if I would want to be the head coach,” Patterson said. “I was the fifth coach in five years. I started off with a salary of $5,000 a year and was a graduate assistant, but I was the full-time coach. The only equipment I had was basically what was there the year before; we had a red wrestling mat that we used as a floor exercise mat.”
Patterson worked under legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was serving a dual role as Alabama’s athletics director.
“Coach Bryant was the athletic director and the person that hired me,” Patterson said. “I started in June 1978 and, for the first time, the men’s and women’s athletic departments were merged. The funding for women’s athletics came out of the football program.”
But here’s what they didn’t tell Patterson: Alabama intended to discontinue the gymnastics program following the 1979 season, her first at the helm in Tuscaloosa.
“I think I got wind of it that spring, but we just started doing well,” Patterson said. “In that year, for the first time in the history of the program, we did not have a losing season. We did very well. We also had a young woman on our team named Ann Woods who later married Steadman Shealy, who was the quarterback of the football team. She did very well at regional competitions.”
The Crimson Tide finished 7-7 in 1979. That, coupled with Bryant’s familiarity with the gymnastics program thanks to Shealy, saved Patterson’s team from elimination.
“At the end of the year, Coach Bryant gave me four scholarships to recruit with,” Patterson said. “We brought in four athletes and, in their senior years, we went to our first NCAA Championships and have been there 30 straight years. Back then, if you won and did well, you received more.”
Patterson and her team made the most of those four scholarships.
“We went from not even knowing that they were going to discontinue the program to getting four scholarships,” Patterson said. “Four years later, that was the turning point. Those four athletes never won a national championship but, in my eyes, they are all a part of every championship that we have won. Without them coming here, we would have had no chance.”
When Patterson was a gymnast at Slippery Rock, she saw the early signs of growth in women’s athletics. Scholarships for female athletes were beginning and there was a decent fan following.
“We had men’s and women’s gymnastics teams up there,” Patterson said. “A couple of athletes, just because of Title IX, were starting to get like $400 scholarships. We would compete and we had a good crowd for women’s athletics back then.”
She arrived at Alabama before women’s sports at the school had made their mark. With her husband, David, who had been a member of the Crimson Tide swimming and diving team, Patterson aggressively jumped on the recruiting trail, selling an Alabama program with a rich athletics tradition.
“When I recruited those first four, three were from Pennsylvania,” Patterson said. “My husband and I went back to an area we knew outside of Pittsburgh and people knew about [former Alabama quarterback] Joe Namath. You could walk in and talk about how the University of Alabama won the national championship in football in 1978.”
Patterson said it was the national familiarity with the Alabama athletics program that helped her, in the early days, persuade gymnasts to take a leap of faith in joining her program.
“You go in and you’re selling them on the university and asking them to come take a chance on the program,” Patterson said. “We gave them a full scholarship and told them to take a look at what our football program had done. I was 22 at the time; when I speak to alumni now, I tell them I was 16. So I was a 22-23 year old trying to get people to believe in me. I think we were able to take what the football team was doing and run with that.”
The breakthrough for Patterson came in 1983 when her squad won the regional title and placed fourth at the NCAA Championships. In 1988, the Crimson Tide captured their first NCAA Championship, also winning the SEC crown for the first time in program history.
The wins have kept on coming, as Patterson claimed her sixth career national title with the Crimson Tide this past April in Duluth, Ga. Earning that sixth title tied Patterson with the legendary Bryant for the most national titles by a single coach in school history.
Even though the trophy cases are a lot more cluttered these days, Patterson’s formula for success hasn’t changed since day one.
In addition to what her gymnasts accomplish in the arena, Patterson, who has served as an associate athletics director at Alabama since 1985, knows that marketing and community relations are equally important pieces of the success puzzle.
“When I was a Senior Woman Administrator, I had the opportunity to be around [Tennessee women’s basketball head coach emeritus] Pat Summitt and she always said ‘If you don’t have as much passion for marketing and promotions as you do in recruiting and coaching, may you compete in front of no one,’” Patterson said. “I took that to heart. Another coach at the University of Utah said that you can build a fan base by winning national championships and hosting them.”
Patterson’s team won national titles in 1988, 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011 and 2012. Thanks to her vision and the tremendous support Alabama received, the school played host to the NCAA Championship meet in 1991, 1996 and 2002.
“To this day, I spend as much time on marketing and getting our program in front of people as I did back then,” Patterson said. “I also think we’ve done a great job of making our gymnastics events what we call ‘fun, family entertainment.’ It’s affordable and even through the recession, our numbers didn’t dip like they did in a lot of things because they were affordable for families. We appeal very much to families and older people who want to see championships and we make it entertaining. It’s not just an athletic event, hopefully it’s great entertainment.”
And just as Patterson hasn’t rested with her efforts in the community, neither has she become complacent with the team’s success.
“I think my staff will tell you that in years you win, you work even harder,” Patterson said. “You come back from the national championship and you’re capitalizing on that. I think it’s important to never be complacent. We’ve won national championships in four different decades, but I don’t think you can ever let up. If you win, it doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax, it means you have to work even harder.”
There was something unique about the start of this off-season for Patterson.
She was watching an Alabama team win the NCAA Championship, but she was doing so from the stands.
Patterson’s youngest daughter, Jordan, is a member of the Crimson Tide softball program who just completed her sophomore year. Patterson was on hand in Oklahoma City, Okla., this past June when Alabama defeated Oklahoma in a best-of-three championship series to take home the crown.
“I can honestly say there was a point in time where we lost to Oklahoma in game one and, in my heart, I said to myself and to my husband, ‘If I could give up one of our championships to allow softball to win, I would do it,’” Patterson said. “It is much harder being a parent than being a coach. It was a special group and I wanted it so much for them.”
Patterson knows how difficult it is to win a national championship and can appreciate first-hand the significance of the softball team’s NCAA title, the first such crown for the sport of softball in the SEC.
“I think people sometimes don’t understand how hard it is to win,” Patterson said. “And then you take in the reality of that whole three-game series and what you saw is that sometimes you need some intangibles. They were down, had just gotten a couple of hits and then the rain came in. That intangible, along with the way the athletes and coaches handled it, changed the game.”
Patterson still has many more chapters to write in the decorated history of Alabama gymnastics. More titles to win, more victories to log and more opportunities to impact the lives of young student-athletes.
That said, her accomplishments up to this point – through 34 years of coaching – will be forever immortalized in Alabama’s Champions Plaza, which will be named in her honor.
The plaza will be constructed between Coleman Coliseum – home of her national championship gymnastics team – and Sewell-Thomas Stadium and will be designed to honor the history of each of Alabama’s sports, with special emphasis on championship teams.
“A lot of people pushed for that and said they were going to do that for me,” Patterson said. “To me, it’s never been about that. It’s always been about the athletes on our team. The most important thing for me is that on that Champions Plaza, from 1998 to 2012, all of the ladies who have won championships in our program are going to be recognized.”
Patterson takes great pride in the many championships that all of the Crimson Tide programs have claimed and is also pleased to see her peers recognized.
“The next significant thing is that two of my peers that I respect and enjoy working with, [women’s golf head coach] Mic Potter and [softball head coach] Patrick Murphy will be recognized,” Patterson said. “If it was about me alone, I wouldn’t care about it, but the fact that I get to do this with them is really meaningful.”
Perhaps most special of all, there will be another Patterson who will be a part of the Champions Plaza.
“My daughter was a member of the national championship softball team and now the softball team will be recognized forever,” Patterson said. “It isn’t just about me. It’s a really humbling honor.”
Sure the numbers and statistics are quite impressive, but it has always been about people for Patterson. That philosophy has been at the core of her program.
“I think we try and develop the whole person, whether it’s academically, internships or whatever they do,” Patterson said. “I think it’s focused on the whole person. Our athletes have a sense of camaraderie and family within our program. Some people don’t necessarily recognize it when they’re 22, but when they’re 35 and 45, a lot of them come back and say ‘thank you’ for all the program has given to them. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have not had a change in our coaching.”
It’s not hard for Patterson to stay motivated to achieve new heights. Her schedule each year is packed with many of the top teams in the nation.
“What I learned early on is that we only have six home meets and, yes, our fans want to see us win, but they also want to see great competition,” Patterson said. “That means that it’s going to be a great meet that the fans want to see and we have to be at our best to win the meet. If we don’t win the meet, then we know what we have to do. Those teams help us get better and they expose us. Because of that, when you get there at the end, you’re not looking over your shoulder, because you’ve seen those teams and you know what you have to do.”
Even though Alabama is consistently among the national leaders in attendance and often competes in sold-out arenas, Patterson is still hungry to bring more exposure to the sport of gymnastics.
“I’d like to see more growth,” Patterson said. “You have pockets within the country where the fan base is tremendous. I’d like to see more of that. Sometimes coaches tend to just focus on coaching and think the fans will just show up. What they don’t see is that I’m out speaking 2-3 times a week and we’re putting posters wherever we go. You have to be successful at pounding the pavement to make people know you’re there.”
Still, even with Patterson’s long resume of accomplishments, the things in which she takes the most pride has very little to do with athletic performance.
“I am very proud of the academic standard that we set,” Patterson said. “Whether you come in here and are a 4.0 student or you struggle in certain areas, we have the facilities and the support system to help them be successful. My husband and I have also been very involved in the community and been a part of the DCH Foundation. We’ve helped raise over $1.2 million for breast cancer research and have the Power of Pink meet. When athletes go on from here, they have that benefit of knowing how it feels to give back to others. In some ways, that’s another championship we’ve won over the years.”
As she looks back on her championship career to this point, Patterson also knows she has been fortunate to live a championship life.
“When I graduated from Slippery Rock, I knew I wanted to coach,” she said. “I knew my dreams and I have lived my dream. But I never knew my dreams could achieve all the things that we have done.”