The word spread quickly around Rec Hall that legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno had passed away. The initial reports eventually turned out to be false, but Paterno did die early the next morning. Still, fans were distraught, some in tears and extra security was brought in.
Then, after the meet, when Alabama head coach Sarah Patterson found out, it brought back haunting memories of another iconic coach’s death: Paul Bear Bryant.
Twenty-nine years ago, Patterson, then in her fourth year of coaching the Tide gymnastics team, was with her squad on their way to Happy Valley for a meet at Penn State. The team was driving from the Pittsburgh airport when she heard the news of Bryant’s death.
It shocked Patterson, to say the least, and she didn’t know what to do. Bryant was an icon and had achieved a level of greatness nobody at Alabama had achieved before. He was also the one who hired Patterson just four years prior.
“I just remember, I was in charge of these women. I’m 26, 27 years old and we were driving cars there and trying to figure out what to do,” Patterson said.
So Patterson called Alabama’s athletic offices. She asked them if she should take the team back to the airport to fly back home. How could her team compete in the midst of such tragedy? But the University told her to stay.
“I was like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and they said, ‘We want you to go to Penn State and we want you to go compete,’” Patterson said. “’That’s what coach Bryant would have wanted you to do.’”
The team won the meet, but the memory stuck with Patterson, making the events of Saturday night even more impactful. As she walked through the stands after Saturday’s meet in Happy Valley, Patterson reflected on Bryant’s death, and how a football coach can mean so much to a community.
“I ran into numerous people, students, adults just in tears — distraught. I’m not even sure it had happened at that point in time — the news of it,” Patterson said. “Your heart went out to them because I saw how it affected people [in Tuscaloosa] years ago.”
There are many similarities to Paterno and Bryant’s career. Both men became the face of their respective schools after much success on the football field. Both men contributed to their campuses and communities off the field (Paterno would show up to wrestling matches, just to watch the team compete). Finally, both men passed away just weeks after they stopped coaching.
Patterson has an immense amount of respect for both coaches and was under the same circumstances when both of their accomplished lives came to an end.
“[Paterno and Bryant] are the two most revered coaches in my career that I’ve ever heard of,” Patterson said. “I don’t think you’re going have any other coach tell you that story, that’s for sure.”
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