The Power of Patterson



After nearly four decades of coaching, Sarah Patterson is stepping down as coach of the Alabama gymnastics team. (CW File)

Sean Landry

For the first time in nearly four decades, Sarah Patterson is not the coach of the University of Alabama gymnastics team.

Facing dual knee replacement surgeries, the 36-year coach stepped down Tuesday, July 15 after 1,006 wins, 43 postseason championships, eight SEC team championships and six NCAA National Championships.

“After much thought and prayer, and after much consultation with Athletics Director Bill Battle and our President, Dr. Judy Bonner, I have decided to step down from the only job I have ever known since graduating from college,” Patterson said in a UA release. “This is something I have tried to postpone, but through ongoing consultation with my physicians, it has become evident that surgery to replace both knees is necessary. My physician shared with me that it will be a year or more before I am back to a normal lifestyle.”

Patterson retires with NCAA records of 29 regional championships, 27 national top-4 finishes, 22 top-3 finishes and 20 Super Six appearances. Under her guidance, 73 athletes were named scholastic All-Americans, eight were given the Honda Award for top women’s gymnast in the nation and, most recently, Kim Jacob was awarded the Honda Cup for top female collegiate student-athlete.

“Sarah Patterson is an extraordinary member of our University, not only as a coach, but as a mentor of young women and a champion for those in need in Alabama and beyond,” Alabama president Judy Bonner said. “As this chapter of her spectacular career comes to a close, I, for one, am very much looking forward to the next chapter, which I know will be equally amazing

Alabama Director of Athletics Bill Battle added his praise for Patterson.

“I could talk for two days about all the accomplishments that she’s done with David, with her staff, with the great gymnasts that have been here over the years,” Battle said. “But to me the greatest thing I could say about Sarah and David is that they have been living examples of our mission for the last 36 years. They have recruited and developed their student-athletes to compete on the highest levels in gymnastics on an amazing streak. They have educated and prepared those student-athletes to compete at the highest levels in life after graduation, and they’ve done both with honor and integrity.”

Patterson expressed sorrow that her health had forced her to retire from the only job she has held since college, but said the decision had become unavoidable.

“I would like to thank Coach Battle, President Bonner and, of course, Marie Robbins, a member of our first national championship team in 1988 and now Alabama’s senior woman administrator, for their unconditional support during this time,” Patterson said. “This is certainly not a joyous time for David and I, but I know it is this right decision for us personally, as well as it being the best decision for the long-term success of the gymnastics program.”

Former Alabama gymnast and two-time balance beam national champion Dana Duckworth will succeed Sarah Patterson as head coach.

“This is such an amazing opportunity,” Duckworth said. “It is the best job in all of gymnastics, and I’m extremely proud to be able to continue to be a part of this incredible tradition.”

Patterson was offered a year’s medical leave by Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, but turned down the opportunity.

“I would like to thank Coach Battle and President Bonner for offering me the opportunity to take a complete year of medical leave and then return to coaching, but in this climate of early recruiting commitments, having a staff that changes at least twice in the next two years is not in the best interests of the continued success of Alabama gymnastics,” Patterson said. “I know that Dana, along with Bryan Raschilla, will do an amazing job carrying on the championship tradition they have been a part of for so many years.”

Former Alabama athletic director and football coach Paul W. Bryant hired Patterson as a 22-year-old graduate of Slippery Rock College in Pennsylvania. Under her guidance and that of her husband and volunteer assistant coach David Patterson, the Alabama gymnastics program grew to one of the most dominant programs in the nation.

David Patterson will also step down from his position as volunteer coach, a post he took in 2008 after retiring as associate head coach due to chronic back pain.

“After having been through brief periods in the past where both of us were out of the gym at different points for health reasons, Sarah and I have always said that neither of us ever wanted to coach without the other,” David Patterson said. “The timing is not what any of us wants, but the necessity of surgery at this point, and preserving Sarah’s health, has set the timetable.”

Both Pattersons have coached through the others’ health issues in the past and agreed that, when the situation became untenable, both would step away from coaching simultaneously.

“We both said we would never do this without the other one,” Sarah Patterson said. “The reality of it is that I didn’t think it would be my health issues that would take us to this path. I thought that at some point, David’s back wouldn’t take it so we’d both step down together. That’s what I thought would happen, so if you’re asking me if I’m shocked, yes. I never would have guessed that.”

Patterson said she delayed her retirement and subsequent surgeries at least partially for family concerns. Sarah and David Patterson’s youngest daughter, Jordan, just finished her own championship softball career at Alabama.

Choking back tears and quoting famed football coach Vince Lombardi, they reflected on her and her husband’s careers Tuesday.

“We have pursued excellence. We have pursued championships,” Patterson said. “But more than anything, I think we have pursued making the world a better place by sending these women out as better representatives and making a difference in the world. We’ve tried to lead by example and to show them what it is important to do.”

When Patterson took over as Alabama gymnastics coach, the team competed in Foster Auditorium to crowds composed of only a few members of the gymnasts’ families and had never had a winning season, she said.

“[Former Tennessee women’s basketball coach] Pat Summit once told me that, if you coach a women’s sport, if you aren’t willing to market and promote as much as you are to coach and recruit, then you compete in front of nobody,” Patterson said. “And I remember pushing a lot of [the media] to cover us. I remember going to Ray Melick of the Birmingham Post-Herald, and I asked him how we get more newspaper coverage. He said ‘Put people in the seats and we’ll cover you,’ and I said, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m gonna do.’”

“I’ll never forget in 1997, we had our first sell-out. It was against University of Georgia, and there were people scalping tickets.”

By the end of her term, the team was regularly selling out Coleman Coliseum, setting a number of NCAA and SEC attendance records. The team has been undefeated in that arena since the 2009 season.

“We started out in Foster Auditorium. We probably had 50 people in the stands,” Patterson said. “I took what Pat Summit said to heart. I was very fortunate to have gotten to know her … I learned a lot and I used it. We still do it. Your car may be out here, you’ve got a flyer on it. We’re standing out at the men’s basketball game, giving out stickers saying ‘Come to this meet.’ If you don’t work on it, then you’re going to compete in front of nobody. I think that’s one of the things that we’ve had success with that I’m most proud of.”

Patterson has a long and illustrious resume, but said her proudest moments came from moments that aren’t documented on a judge’s scoresheet.

Patterson said she is especially proud of whatever role she might have played in the promotion of women’s sports. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive praised Patterson’s advocacy of women’s sports at SEC Media Days.

“Sarah is not just a great coach but a great pioneer and a fabulous advocate for gymnastics and women’s athletics in the Southeastern Conference,” Slive said. “We have legendary coaches, and I think we talked about Pat Summitt, and we can also talk about Sarah Patterson in the same breath. She is that kind of pioneer, that kind of great coach along with others who have elevated her sport to a place where we are preeminent.”

Patterson shies away from that comparison, however.

“If someone will consider me as a small part of the rise of women’s programs and 12,000 people coming to a sporting event for women? I’m very proud of that,” Patterson said. “But I don’t consider myself an equal to that.”

Patterson also spoke highly of the Power of Pink program, an annual event benefitting breast cancer treatment for disadvantaged women.

“I think one of the proudest things of our career is the initiative of the Power of Pink that we started 11 years ago and the raising of $1.35 million for disadvantaged women in the west-Alabama community,” Patterson said.

One thing, however, made Patterson the most proud, she said: the impact she and her husband had on the dozens of women who crossed their paths.

“I think what I’m most proud of, of the overall success of our program, is that David and I have helped a lot of women, in 36 years, have great careers. We tried to be a role model for them as both parents and as a husband and wife team. I think the success of our athletes is pretty special. I had to quit looking at my emails and text messages today because it was so overwhelming, the things that they said to us about how we’ve impacted their lives.

“That means the most to me.”