The Patterson Legacy: Coaching couple shares story

During a rare competition-free week this spring, David Patterson becomes a storyteller and comedian.

David, his wife and head gymnastics coach, Sarah, and assistant coaches Bryan Raschilla and Dana Duckworth are all gathered reminiscing about their time together and sharing stories.

The conversation switches to talk of Sarah’s assistant coaches potentially becoming head coaches one day and the possibility of David bolting for another school is thrown around. That’s when David brings up a touchy subject.

“Seriously, I’ve always thought of what it would take to make the Alabama-Auburn rivalry better,” David said with a smile on his face. “Both of our kids had left home when that job became open last time. I should have applied for the Auburn job and really stepped up the rivalry.”

Everyone laughs except Sarah. Even though she knows he’s joking, Sarah shoots David the look – eyes squinted and head slightly tilted. It’s the look a man fears when delivered by a woman of significance in his life.

She holds the stare for 10 seconds that feel like 10 minutes before smiling and saying, “he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Neither of the two have plans of going anywhere, and that is what makes their situation special.

“When it’s a team like David and I have, it’s great because he could have been a coach at any program in the country, but it just so happened that we are married, and neither of us were going to leave the other,” Sarah said. “That’s what makes us great.”

Humble beginnings

Gymnasts have come and gone since the summer of 1978, but the one constant in UA’s program has been the Patterson family. Originally, Sarah was hired out of Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania as an assistant coach while she was still in school, but things changed around the time she was set to graduate. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant offered her the head coaching job and a salary of $5,000.

She was told she could have one assistant, and she immediately thought of David. The two formed a friendship while working in Huntsville, Ala., for a summer, and she knew David was still in school at Alabama.

All Sarah could offer David was a $500 scholarship the athletic department had left over from the women’s basketball team. But in 1978, $500 was a lot of money for a student.

“Literally, I signed a scholarship that said women’s basketball scholarship on it,” David recalls. “That’s how I got the money.”

Four years later, the two wed at Trinity Church in Tuscaloosa.

“It was marrying my best friend, the man of my dreams and the person who worked for me,” Sarah said.

Throughout the years, it has been gymnastics all the time in the Patterson household. So much so that their daughters Jessie Patterson Jones and Jordan would play a game to see if they could catch their parents discussing work at the dinner table, Jessie says.

“When the kids were there,” David recalls, “we might be in the middle of dinner and one of them would say, ‘Mom, dad, you’re doing it again,’ and we’d say, ‘What is it?’ And they’d say ‘You’re talking about gymnastics.’

“We had to be really careful and focus on what their activities were during dinner and then maybe talk about practice or recruiting after our time with them. It’s easier to slip into the mode of working more now that the kids are gone.”

The two have built a life and a program together over the years. While most couples are allowed to get a break from each other when they go to work, the Pattersons are always around each other. Only twice in their coaching careers has one been without the other – once when Sarah was on bed rest while pregnant with their youngest daughter, Jordan, and the other when David went through chemotherapy for kidney cancer.

The key for the Pattersons’ success in their personal lives is the lack of conflict, David said.

“Everybody around us thinks we’re weird because we don’t fight,” David said. “Almost on everything gymnastics-wise, I can walk across the gym to say something to her, and she’ll say what I was thinking. Same with her; I know what she’s going to say before she says it. We’re very in tune with each other and we always agreed on how to raise our kids. That’s not to say we don’t disagree on some things, but we never really have fought.”

Their personalities balance each other out. Sarah is outspoken. She accepts the speaking engagements and serves as the face of the program.

“Both of my parents are incredible motivators, but they do it in different ways,” Jessie Patterson Jones said. “Mom is the one you can go to for advice that will get you somewhere. When I want professional advice or don’t know how to handle a situation, my mom is the first person I call because odds are she’s experienced it.”

David is admittedly the reserved, behind-the-scenes type. He keeps the family on track.

“When we were younger and both doing it all the time, he was very good about saying we have to stop,” Sarah said. “He’d say, ‘You spoke two times this week, three times last week. It’s time to run down the speaking engagements.’ He was much better at saying ‘no’ than I was. So he put me on restriction from time to time.”

Sustaining success

When Sarah was hired, she became the University’s fifth gymnastics coach in five years, with the program on the verge of being canceled. Alabama won seven meets that first season.

Since the team made its first trip in 1983, Alabama has made 31 consecutive NCAA Championship appearances, including this season, which is the second longest streak in the history of collegiate gymnastics.

Alabama is just one of four teams in collegiate gymnastics history to win an NCAA championship.

Now, the Pattersons have an opportunity to win their seventh national championship and third consecutive. This season is the 25th anniversary of their first national title.

“It was validation that you can coach the entire person, not just the athlete and have success,” Sarah says of their first championship. “To me, it put a stamp on our philosophy.”

The philosophy has remained the same over the years: Develop the whole person, not just the gymnast, and the scores will take care of themselves.

If the scores go their way at this year’s nationals, the Pattersons’ legacy will continue to blossom.

“When it’s all said and done, we’re just excited that we get to be a small part of the University’s history and tradition,” Sarah said.